Making friends

I mostly look at physical traits when I purchase sheep, but especially when it comes to rams, I also consider temperament. Specifically, we would not purchase a ram who has displayed violent behavior. Temperament can be hereditary, and we need our rams to be reasonably safe around people. Temperament in ewes, however, is a whole different picture. Nearly every ewe is safe — few will charge a person (unless they are perhaps defending their very young lambs) — although their temperaments will vary. They can be cooperative and sweet, coming up for scratches and a quick hello, or they can be aloof, hard to catch, or difficult to handle. Obviously we all prefer the friendly ones, but when purchasing, there is no guarantee. Just because a ewe was sweet at her original home doesn’t mean that she will be just as sweet in her new flock. Sometimes it’s hard to know how things will go.

For example, I sold one of our sweetest, most friendly ewes, Hailey, to my friend Melissa a couple of years ago. Hailey was one of those girls who would greet me each and every time I came to the fields, and I could easily change her coat without anyone else’s help; she would stand in place for me as I scratched and petted her with one hand. She arrived at Melissa’s with a whole different attitude. She is nicknamed “Wild Thing” because she is nearly impossible to catch or work with — and she teaches her lambs the same behavior. We’ve tried for years to figure out why she now acts the way she does. Melissa is a gentle and loving shepherdess, so there is no need for Hailey to have fear in this new flock. Yet Hailey continues her crazy wild ways, making a lot more work for Melissa.

This year, I traded our Romeldale ewe Posey for a young ewe lamb from Yetter Sheep Farm in Pennsylvania. The shepherdess there was looking for a sweet ewe of a particular pattern, and I was interested in some of her unrelated bloodlines. I ended up with Qashel, who is currently in quarantine. As we brokered this swap and I considered a number of ewes and ewe lambs, the shepherdess mentioned that Qashel was one of her friendliest and sweetest ewe lambs this year. I was looking forward to having a new friend once she arrived, but once she was in our possession, I began to question whether this would ever be the case.

Qashel was wild throughout our transport back to Iowa. I knew that she was likely afraid in the trailer, not understanding what was happening to her or why she no longer had her flock around her. Thankfully, she came with a ram lamb from the same flock, so at least there was something familiar in her environment. Yet of the two lambs, she was the crazy one, running around the confines of  the trailer’s pen whenever we entered to give feed or water. We looked forward to the day when we would unload them into our barn and she would settle down. The barn meant stability, and we hoped that would make her feel calmer as she started her adjustment to new surroundings.

Unfortunately Qashel was even wilder — as if that was possible — once we got her into the barn for quarantine. I decided to handle her no more than necessary, since I really wanted her to learn to trust me. I added one of our calmest ewe lambs to the quarantine pen, knowing that the ram lamb was leaving at the end of last week. I hoped that Qastanet would help to calm Qashel, teaching her that I was a good thing, bringing scratches and graham crackers. I would enter their area only once each day to feed and water the groups of quarantined sheep, but nothing seemed to help. As soon as I entered the stall where the groups were housed, Qashel’s eyes would widen to show the whites all the way around her pupils. (This almost never happens in sheep and is typically a sign of extreme fear.) She would panic and run around the small pen while Qastanet stood for her scratches, occasionally looking at Qashel in curiosity. “What the heck is that lamb doing?” she seemed to ask.

A week passed and little changed. The accompanying ram lamb went to his new home, and the two ewe lambs settled into the daily routine. Once a day I would feed and water the quarantined sheep, and Qashel, eyes wide with fear, would run crazed around the pen, occasionally bumping into the walls or the hay feeder as she went. I tried talking softly and bringing treats of grain. I brought graham crackers and sat within the pen for a while, hoping she would settle down, but nothing seemed to help. Qastanet ate all of the grain and the graham crackers while watching her crazy pen-mate run. I was getting frustrated.

I tried again to make friends when I fed this morning. I was a little late in feeding, and like most days, I took graham crackers into the pen with me as I was preparing to bring in their daily ration of hay. Per our routine, Qashel’s eyes grew huge and the running began as Qastanet came over to nibble at whatever I had brought. I stationed myself in one corner, knowing that Qashel’s running would have her crashing into me if I didn’t position myself carefully. Squatting in that corner, trying to make myself small, I tossed a few bits of cracker into the hay feeder and Qastanet immediately began to gobble them up. For some unknown reason, Qashel suddenly stopped her crazy loops around the pen and, for the first time in my presence, looked at what Qastanet was doing.

I held my breath as Qashel slowly came to the hay feeder and sniffed at the cracker pieces I had thrown there. Slowly her eyes relaxed and her lips began to move one of the pieces of graham cracker, eventually picking it up in her mouth. She raised her head to carefully watch me as she chewed, and I tried not to stare in my surprise — staring can be considered a threat, and to new sheep, I am a threat, having the physiology of a predator rather than prey. As the two ewe lambs finished the crackers, I threw a few more into the feeder, and both of them gobbled the bits down quickly, Qashel forgetting her fear in favor of the sweet treats.

Qashel slowly came forward to take her first bit of graham cracker from my hand as I watched in my camera’s viewing screen.

As the bits of cracker disappeared, I decided to push my success a bit further. I slowly held out a piece of cracker, hoping Qashel would overcome her fear and take the piece from my fingers. I kept my eyes on the camera that I held in my free hand, seeing Qashel’s actions only second-hand through the small viewing screen on the back. I watched her slowly approach and then stretch her neck out, bringing her ever closer to the cracker. Then suddenly I felt it; Qashel slowly nibbled and then finally took the entire piece of cracker into her mouth. It seemed impossible after the past week’s crazed running, but it was true. Qashel had trusted me enough to take a cracker. I offered one more, and she took that too. It was almost unbelievable. This crazy ewe lamb had just taken a huge step forward. She had decided to begin to trust.

It will still be a while before I can claim Qashel as a friend, but our relationship has established a foundation. There will be at least one more week of quarantine during which we can continue to build the trust between us. Yet the big point here is that although her entire world has turned upside down in the past couple of weeks, Qashel is once again beginning to make friends.

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1 Comment

  • Elaine Chicago says:

    What a sweet encouraging story!! You have been encouraging the sheep to be friendly for so long and your perseverance pays off!!

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