Each of our sheep has its own personality and way of approaching the world. In a very big flock, the shepherd has no way of separating out the individuals; with nature’s carefully developed defense mechanism, each sheep is lost among the whole of the flock. Our flock, however, is not so large that they can easily hide. With so many different colors and patterns, each individual stands out, and I get to know who they are and how they interact with the world. Each is unique — some timid, some bossy, some friendly, and others shy. It’s one of the joys of what I do.
We are now feeding hay at an ever-increasing rate. Since the ewes are entering their last trimester (and several are already there), they must be on an increasing level of nutrition to keep both the ewes and their unborn lambs happy and healthy. In the low-nutrition group, I feed out multiple bales of grass hay into pairs of feeders in the south-facing run-in shelter at the old Storage Barn. Eventually those sheep will join up with the high-nutrition group for shearing and lambing down in the Sheep Barn. But until shearing this weekend, they continue to be a separate group and are fed grass hay in our bale feeders.
By the time the hay is being fed out, the ewes are hungry — and they all want their hay instantly! When I begin loading the bales into the feeders, the run-in shelter is nothing but chaos. Thirty-nine ewes are milling about as they wait for the hay, and then they push and shove to get close as the first bale is loaded into the most distant feeder. (The distance is intentional; I need to entice the crowd away from my hay source so that I can maneuver!) The bossiest, pushiest sheep find a position around the first bales, and the less pushy ewes find positions just behind them. The timid or shy ewes — and often the ewe lambs, who are a bit intimidated by the whole process — hang back, hoping to get to the hay but not quite sure how to do so since they aren’t as aggressive as their older and bolder flock-mates.
Two of the more timid souls are nearly three-year-old McKinley, a beautiful silvery Romney, and ten-month-old Osage, a striking dark gray Romeldale. Each of them has spent many a feeding time hanging back and staring at the chaotic scene, not quite confident enough to claim a spot and stand their ground as the other ewes try to push in. It would be easy to feel sorry for these two girls — but you would be wasting your sympathy! Both of them have developed a strategy to find a place. But they haven’t become any more aggressive. Instead, they have become more intelligent about their goals.
For the past couple of weeks, I have noticed that once I load the first bale into a joined pair of feeders, either McKinley or Osage will quickly jump into the second feeder. I wasn’t quite sure why they were so interested in waiting there until I came back with the next bale. And I didn’t much care if they did so, since they quickly jumped out when I arrived with the next bale. Day after day, I would find one of these two girls in the adjoining feeder within seconds of my placement of the first bale. What, I wondered, where they doing standing in the feeder? And then suddenly, it all became clear!
You see, the first nibbles at a bale are always the very best — and also the hardest to achieve as all of the other ewes want the same access. There is a tremendous amount of pushing and shoving that occurs when the first bale is placed. This is obviously too aggressive an atmosphere for the likes of Osage, McKinley, and the other timid ewes. Yet, these two have figured out that as soon as the bale is in place, the best place to be is in the adjoining bale feeder. From their place in the other feeder, no other sheep can push them away (the sides of the feeder prevent this), and they have full access to the end of the bale just placed! They can basically eat from that position without being challenged by any other ewe — not for very long, admittedly, but even a short period of access to a fresh bale is better than no access!
So day after day, I drop a bale into the first feeder and one of these two girls hops into the second feeder, eating as quickly as she can. When I come with the next bale, she will take a quick last bite (usually a huge mouthful!) as I approach the feeder. As I begin to swing the bale into the feeder, she jumps out on the other side, waiting patiently for me to go load the next bale, which is again the first bale in a pair of joined feeders. The whole process begins anew with the next pair!
I must admit that I’m a bit impressed by these two girls. There are quite a few other sheep who are too timid to come close to the first bales. They wait on the sidelines until all of the feeders are filled, when there is enough space for each ewe to find a spot. But these two girls — as timid as they are — have found a way around their inherent lack of confidence to find a prime place at the table. It never fails to make me smile when I see the joy on their faces as they gobble quickly, knowing that I am on my way! Good for them!