Shepherds often discuss topics as widely varied as our sheep. Whether on the phone, by email, or in person, most sheep people recognize that we are a dying breed and that we have so much information to share.
In a discussion the other day, another shepherd and I were talking about some of our best and worst sheep, and I realized that there is sometimes very little difference between a particularly good sheep and a very bad sheep. The difference is truly in the eye of the beholder.
For example, I happened to mention to this friend the other day that Natasha and her two mini-lambs had found their way out of the pasture where the rest of the flock was grazing, under the fence, and into a fresh pasture. I saw this as evidence of problem-solving and a very strong survival instinct — they had sought out grazing that was both deeper and less parasite-laden than their previous pasture. On the other hand, a shepherd could also view these three as “problem sheep” who made their way under fences that were meant to keep them in. Many shepherds will cull for this type of issue, sending these sheep to auction or the meat locker and keeping only those who respect their fencing. Who is right? I suppose it depends.
On the same day, I had to give OdaMae her final injection of a series to treat pneumonia. On the first day, OdaMae was easy to catch because she was so sick. She had foam around her mouth as she moved air in and out of her lungs; the sound rattled through the barn, and I was afraid for her life. After two days of antibiotic shots, she was much improved; and on this, the last day of the series, she was back to normal. I didn’t want to skip the last shot, though, as that’s how resistant bugs are created. I went after OdaMae with everything I could muster, but she would have none of it. She looked across the barn at me as if I were part coyote, and every time I moved a muscle, she darted off in the opposite direction.
We played this cat-and-mouse game for a full forty-five minutes. During that time, I had my hands on her five times, but each time (except for the last) she scooted out before my hand could close on the fabric of her coat. Around and around the barn we went (thankfully, I had closed the doors to the outside before we began!), and OdaMae was determined to get away. Now, another shepherd could look at this girl as being too much trouble to deal with — catching sheep should not take so long! Yet I saw this in a different light. OdaMae carries genetics that have been hidden for centuries, and the fact that we have teased them out may have also brought out some other very feral genes. Besides that, if she can get away from this very determined human-coyote, then she certainly has a strong survival instinct and will likely outrun the real thing too. Her ability to outrun and outwit me for nearly an hour can be seen as a negative or a positive; again, it depends on the eye of the beholder.
There are so many examples that come to mind, examples of sheep survival vs. shepherd convenience. Flock owners make decisions about their flock, who stays and who goes, which lambs will join the flock and which will be sold. Yet how many of those shepherds really look at the traits they are considering banishing and examine them from the sheep’s point of view, from the position of survival? Few, I suspect.
So after all of this, I’ve decided to reconsider my cull list. This doesn’t mean that I won’t be culling any ewes this year, since the flock’s strength and survival depends on the periodic incorporation of young members. Yet all of this has made me more aware that every shepherd draws a line in the sand that separates the behaviors that are accepted from those that are too far outside the management of the flock. I want strong sheep who are determined to survive. Yet even that can be taken to an extreme. While it’s okay for Natasha to wander into an adjoining field with her twins, she would be crossing a line if she escaped the farm and wandered down the road.
It has certainly given me something to think about, this new take on a very old problem: who stays and who goes. I’m in the thick of that decision for this year right now, and it’s a timely reminder of how very critical this decision will be — for the flock, and for me and my work. And if it all lies in the eye of the beholder, in this case, that’s me.