Ingenuity and shepherding

We shepherds are an interesting lot. Although my college education made me an electrical engineer many years ago, I’ve done many things and reinvented myself several times over my lifetime to date. I was an engineer at first, then a stay-at-home mom to our two kids for a time and doing contract engineering work when it fit in. When we moved to Iowa, I stepped back from the workforce to draw up the plans for our new home and supervise the build. Almost right after the house completion, I was asked to “fill in” as a teacher’s aide at our local school where our kids attended classes – and ended up staying there for years. Eventually, I got a few sheep and worked with them “on the side” as I got a job at our church as the director of religious education, and then went on to get a master’s degree in religion. Finally, I ended up rolling my truck on an icy December morning and could no longer sit for long periods – and that pushed me to enlarge our flock and work with our sheep full-time. I now am a shepherd, and it is not so much a job as a lifestyle. I essentially spend every waking hour thinking about, working with or reading about sheep and their fiber, pushing to increase both my knowledge and the boundaries of what is possible with our flock.

Over the now-seventeen years in which we have raised sheep, I have learned a lot and met a lot of people – people who, like me, found their way to sheep in round-about ways. I don’t think I’ve ever run across someone who inherited the farm and the sheep from their family, continuing a family legacy. Most of the shepherds I know came into shepherding because of a personal desire to work with sheep or livestock or to produce wool, although there are a few who got sheep to “make money.” Honestly, shepherding is a lot of work for the money we make, so this latter group usually doesn’t stay in sheep too long. It is enjoyable and interesting work if you like working with animals, and particularly if you love the wool sheep produce, but if the only reason a person gets sheep is to make money, there are many other ways to reach that goal that likely require a lot less work, a lot less soap and laundry detergent, and probably less time, too.

Those of us who are shepherds because we find the work interesting and rewarding (and make a bit of money, too) usually find ourselves in a situation sometime in the first few years of our newfound efforts where we come up short. A situation arises that we don’t know how to resolve. For the good of one or more sheep in the flock, we need to do something, but we aren’t quite sure how to proceed. Those who are in it for the money generally shrug their shoulders and walk away – there is no obvious answer, so they move on. The rest of us find ourselves caring about the outcome and struggling with how to accomplish what needs to be done – and that’s when shepherding ingenuity steps in.

Oh, sometimes the beginners get lucky and call on an experienced shepherd who then helps them solve the issue – but eventually everyone comes up against something that seems somewhat unique – something they have to solve themselves. A shepherd worth the title will generally go about their business in this situation, but be constantly thinking back to the problem – how could I work this out? What could I change or fix or make that might help? What would someone else more creative than I am do in this situation? We start to think out of the box, and eventually something incredible happens and we come up with an answer to our problem – sometimes purely by accident. Once this happens the first time, we are more likely to keep with it the next time a problem raises its head. We get caught in a positive feedback loop that rewards us for thinking about and finding solutions.

I can think of dozens of examples and don’t have nearly the space for that here. We made grain feeders from 8-10″ diameter PVC pipes that were 12 feet long. We split them lengthwise with a saw and then screwed a couple of pieces of 2″x4″ onto the bottom for legs to keep them from tipping over. They worked great – and were much less expensive than many alternatives. Many shepherds now use electrical alligator clips to eliminate entropion (inverted eyelids) in young lambs – and this is much easier and less expensive than having the vet come out to do it. In climates that are much drier than Iowa in the summer, an easy salt feeder can be made from PVC plumbing parts that cost about $15. the list goes on. When we heard of a friend’s ewe who the vet had given up on because she was “too far gone” with hypocalcemia (also known as “milk fever” – a lack of calcium in the blood), I suggested that she crush up Tums tablets and make a paste to force-feed. I just remembered being pregnant and my doctor suggesting I eat a couple of tablets each day to make sure I was getting my calcium. I couldn’t go to help, but I suggested the tablets – and the ewe lived, surprising us all!

Side view of Elisabeth’s sling with the lamb eating – what a great idea!

Sometimes, shepherds go above and beyond to help their flockmembers. My friend Elisabeth has a young ewe lamb who was hit with a horrible case of anemia a few weeks ago – so much so that the lamb could no longer stand. Lying prone for long periods is a real problem for sheep, but this lamb was too weak to hold herself up; it meant that her legs were not getting the circulation that they needed if she were to recover. I suggested some type of sling – even for just short periods each day – to try to keep her going until she got stronger. Elisabeth brainstormed and then went to work, sending me the photo on the left and below right – a picture of the

The same sling as above, but from the front – with the lamb resting her chin on the resting bar.

sling that she and her husband created for the weak ewe lamb. She could lower her head to eat or rest it on the bar if more comfortable. At last report now three weeks or so later, the ewe lamb is getting stronger and the color is returning to her tissues – and she is standing better in her sling. This is true shepherding ingenuity at its finest. We are nothing if not a creative lot if our flock needs us! Good job, Elisabeth!

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  • Jane M says:

    As someone who has reinvented herself a few times this is a lovely blog entry to read. Also PVC pipe is the best!

    Is there a reason why people don’t inherit sheep? I found that a fascinating factoid.

    • Dee says:

      I’m not sure why flocks don’t get passed, but it doesn’t seem to be common – at least not among the many shepherds that I have known or know now!

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