Sheep take time to integrate into a new flock, and how much time depends upon many different factors. Many shepherds never consider this integration time – they move sheep hither and yon with little thought to the fact that these are living creatures that have made a home and a life at another farm. The most complicated issue, they think, is trying to find transport or arranging for the pick-up. Little do they realize that, like our own moves across town or across the country, moving among flocks can be a traumatic event to the sheep, and it takes them time to settle in.
As I mentioned , this post-transport period can vary in length depending upon many factors: the age of the sheep transported, the number of sheep coming in the group, the number of times the sheep has been transported in the past, and the personalities of the sheep making the move all play into the settle-in period. Generally, the younger the sheep, the less time it takes them to settle in. Much like young children, as soon as they feel safe and well cared for, they begin to make friends and see the new place as home. Older ewes, however, can take months – even over a year – to fully settle in. If they have been transported previously, then the transport stress is reduced a bit – but the fact that they are then surrounded by sheep they do not know can be and generally is still stressful and requires patience to overcome.
When more than one sheep is transported together, the stress is lessened for each member of the group, since they have friends immediately upon arrival. Yet there is still a settling-in period, which is obvious if the shepherd watches the behavior of these new sheep. In this situation, the new group will usually keep themselves separate from the new flock during the highest-stress period, only joining together when a threat appears (dog, tractor, unrecognized person). The new sheep will eat and sleep together as a unit and are not fully settled in until they make friends in the new flock, fully integrating and no longer living a separate existence within the same space as the larger flock.
Sheep react poorly to stress, and relocation stress is no different. You might find that new sheep have a more difficult time with internal parasites or are more prone to illness. One ewe I purchased from California several years back came down with pneumonia twice during her settling-in period, but had no similar issues once she was part of our larger flock. A couple of years later, I sold her to a friend in Wisconsin – and she almost immediately came down with pneumonia again, and had to be treated with two rounds of antibiotics to eliminate the problem. This past spring, the same sheep was again sold to another flock in Wisconsin, and within a week or so of her arrival there, I got a call from the new shepherd – the ewe once again was running a high fever and having trouble breathing: another round of pneumonia. It is important to watch recently transported sheep closely for illness, internal parasites, weight loss, etc., all through their transition period until it is obvious that they have fully integrated into flock life.
Keep in mind that the stress of transport isn’t limited to cross-country treks – although these long-distance moves are more of an issue than local moves. If you think about it, it simply makes sense, since sheep eat the local flora – they learn as very young lambs what is edible and what is not in the fields in which they live. When these same sheep are then transported a long distance, they arrive not recognizing many of the plants that now surround them. It is not uncommon in this situation for sheep to drop weight until they have experimented with local plant-life, determining what is and is not edible. It is also possible that these sheep can end up poisoning themselves with local plants that they do not recognize – particularly if there is little in the field that they know is safe. This risk is greater in younger lambs, but can happen in any age group. Sheep transported locally generally don’t have this specific issue, since the plants in the new pastures will generally be similar to those they found in their previous locale and they should be able to find something they recognize as edible and safe.
One way to minimize relocation stress for a single sheep is to pair them with a sheep from the flock that is similar in age and sex while they are in quarantine. This does risk the flock member since the new sheep could infect them with some illness or parasite (the reason we quarantine sheep coming in from other flocks). Yet, pairing the new sheep with a similar flock member in the usual close quarters of quarantine usually develops a bond between these two sheep that survives once they are released back into the larger flock. The new sheep then has a “friend” within the new flock and is more likely to settle in quickly as this friend shows them where to find water, salt, and other friends.
The three ewes we purchased in a flock dissolution in August and transported back to Iowa are settling in well. They are still keeping themselves separate from the larger flock, but are beginning to come forward when I bring out graham crackers – a good first step in establishing trust. Lily, the oldest, has actually some forward for a bit of cracker and begun to make friends within the flock, sometimes grazing with Maisie and McKinley rather than her Montana friends. This is a good example of how the personality of a sheep can factor into reducing or extending the transition period – Lily is obviously a sheep that “goes with the flow!” The others still stand back, watching the graham cracker rush, but too nervous to join in – and they graze as a separate group, off to the side of the rest of our sheep. We will give them time, however, to settle in, watching closely to prevent problems before they become serious.