I have two grown children, so I know all about how hard it is to let go. With a new granddaughter (now going on five months old), I’ve already talked with our son about how hard it is to realize that once a child is born, their entire first eighteen years or more are all about slowly letting them go; it begins with cutting the umbilical cord, and before we know it, they are out in the world on their own or with a spouse – and we have done our job well if they can stand on their own and do the same for their own children.
Our lambs are much the same. We help to bring them into the world, and nurture them in our barns with the safest possible environment and the best feed. We protect them from the harsh world outside the barn doors: the predators and the inclement weather, the rustlers and the diseases. Yet, I know from the day they are born that I have not done my job well until they can join the world outside those barn doors. We vaccinate them, provide a protective llama or two, and harden them off to the cold nights by opening all of the doors of the barn, simulating a night “out there.”
Eventually, the next step is that big step of going out into the fields with their mothers to learn to graze. This is an important step in their maturation; without it, they wouldn’t be able to differentiate between good nutrition and poison. I know they must go. Yet, this letting go isn’t easy. In the same way that I coaxed my daughter-in-law to give her daughter a chance to grow in a safe outside world in daycare, I am now telling myself the same things: “It’s good for them to be out – they have so much more world to explore.” “They come from great parents – of course they will be fine!” “It’s harder on you than on them – they will only be stressed if they sense your own misgivings!” I know all that – but it doesn’t make this step any easier.
Today is the day that our mothers and lambs will enter the outside world for the first time. I fed them their hay and grain as usual this morning so that they would fill up before the move. The old saying, “Never put dry sheep on wet grass” is true – you never want to put sheep who have been indoors or on poor ground (hence the dry sheep – protected or no longer wet from dew) into a lush field with the dew still on it. The idea is to allow the sheep to eat their much poorer rations early in the day and then once they are fairly full, move them to the lush new field. Having already eaten, they will eat much less of the great stuff in the field that first day, allowing for a more gradual introduction to such high levels of nutrition.
The lambs have no idea what is in store, although the ewes are becoming suspicious – and excited! They know from past years that once the grass is out, they usually are, too. This is quite late for our usual first turn-out day (they are usually already out in late March!). The adults have watched my preparations over the past days and every time I’ve gone out into the field – to set up the creep house, to get the water lines running, or to check the level of grazing – they have yelled to me to let me know they are ready to go! They want to move! Come on! Open the gates and let’s go! The lambs get excited by their mothers’ cries, but they have no idea what started all the commotion. They just run around the barn and small pen on the driveway, jumping and playing in the excitement. In just a very short time – a few short hours – they will know. Even they will celebrate this day.
[Continued a few hours later] The ewes and their lambs have been moved out to the Timber where they will now graze. Half of the lambs ran out of the barn with their mothers and followed the llamas, who followed me out to their new pasture. This group was quick to get the hang of grazing, and began to stuff their mouths with the lush grass and wildflowers.
The other half of the lambs were not quite so smart. As lambs are prone to do, they became afraid as their mothers ran for the Timber when I called. This group of lambs then doubled back to the barn – the only home they have known since birth. In the sheep world, if a lamb fears that it has been separated from its mother, its instinct tells it to return to wherever they last saw their dams and wait there for her to return. Unfortunately, their mothers were happy to leave them behind for the time being while they gorged themselves out on their new pasture!
Herding small lambs is worse than herding cats, so after about a half hour of running after them (three adults and a dog ran continuously trying to convince them to move west!), we changed tactics. We cornered the entire group in the barn, loaded them one-by-one into our trailer, then drove the trailer out into the Timber. Of course, when we arrived, the lambs had no desire to leave the trailer – they knew they were safe there, and had no idea what awaited them outside. We then unloaded them in a reversal of the loading: we handed each one-by-one out into the grass and sunshine where they soon found their mothers. Quaker got her bottle, and now all is well in the Timber Pasture. I only hope it stays that way!