Our flock’s guardians

Because we run a sheep farm, our focus is obviously on sheep. Yet, we keep a number of other animals here, too – and I depend on most of them in my work with the flock. The five or more cats are here to keep the mouse population down in the barns where the sheep congregate; the three dogs help me move the sheep wherever they may need to go; and the four llamas guard the flock from natural predators. These other animals are my co-workers, and just like in any other working environment, I have come to know them well as individuals. Unlike most office environments, we may not be the same species, but over the years, we have shared a lot of experiences and I have relationships with each as an individual – some better and some worse.

Honestly, it is easy at times to forget all about our llamas. They have one of those jobs that, if done well, you hardly notice. Failures in protection are very obvious, but successes – well, you pretty much never know about those! If I come out in the morning and the entire flock is alive and well, I never know of the coyotes or neighborhood dogs, the bobcats or heaven-knows-what that might have paid them a visit the night before! The llamas are our unsung heroes who do their jobs so well, we hardly know they are there.

Howie in the background and Martin in the foreground

Howie in the background and Martin in the foreground

Over the years, I have come to know the personality of each – and how they like to guard. Martin (a castrated male) likes to work the perimeter and loves young lambs. It is not unusual to see him playing with the younger flock members in a quick game of tag or running headlong down one of our hills surrounded by a passel of lambs, seemingly running out of control. Regardless of his age, he seems forever young. Martin is one of only two of our four llamas that does well working with another – and that other one is Howie, our youngest llama (also a castrated male). Martin trained Howie, and because we only need three llamas for much of the year, they often work together. Martin will be working the perimeter with Howie standing watch among the sheep, ready to group them into a tight knot that he protects with his life at a moment’s notice. Howie honestly hates to work alone – when I separate him from Martin, it takes a day or two for him to stop pining away and focus on his new role. He is a good guard, however, and loves the younger flock members. He, too, will initiate games with them, or simply bed down with a dozen lambs tucked in under his heavy spring coat.

Summer, taken last year

Summer, taken last year

Summer is our only female llama, and probably our crankiest. She is the best in the Timber because she trusts nothing and no one – except me, that is. Summer will always let me in, but is wary of any one or anything else. It is what makes her such a good guard. She can be quite the problem to shear, deworm or vaccinate because she is big and uncooperative, but she is the one you want if you are under attack. She looks fierce! Unfortunately, she can also be a bit crabby with the lambs; Summer has little patience with the younger flock members. Yet, she is the only llama that can hold her own with our adult rams; the other llamas always lose weight when in among our largest flock members, but Summer does fine. In fact, the rams know not to mess with Summer. She has earned their respect.

Orbit, taken during the summer

Orbit, taken during the summer

Our last llama is Orbit, another castrated male. He and Summer knew each other at their previous farm, but Summer came first and eventually Orbit came, too. The one thing I can tell you about Orbit is that he loves grain – REALLY loves grain. This is one llama who will do anything for a bite of grain, and that makes him easy to move and handle. You just need to wave a bucket and he is yours! Orbit is also a bit impatient with lambs, but not as bad as Summer. This guy can go into pretty much any group successfully, but he works much better alone. If I put him in with another llama, he ends up spending too much time with the llama and not enough time guarding. Orbit is nothing if not social, and he much prefers llamas to any other species. Yet, if I put him into the group of young ram lambs where he is now, he is great with them. He has Summer in the adjoining paddock and the ram lambs to hang out with, too – and some of the best feed around, since our lambs get only the best. It’s his winter home every year: in with the nearly-yearling rams.

After we broke up the breeding groups in late October, Martin and Howie came back together to guard the ewe flock as a pair. When we broke them into two different nutritional levels this week, Martin went with the high nutrition group and Howie the low, but before that, they worked together. I noticed at that time that they had developed a new way to rest while covering the flock at night. Instead of bedding down in their usual patterns with Martin along the high point of the perimeter and Howie in among the ewes, they had begun to bed down next to each other in the middle of the gathered ewe flock. Even more interesting, they would cush down (this is what they call it when llamas tuck their legs underneath themselves and lie with heads and necks upright) side-by-side, each one facing the opposite direction. I thought this was pretty ingenious, since in this position, they could easily see or sense anything coming towards the flock from any direction. Each was responsible for 180 degrees of view. They had obviously developed a working partnership as two equals, both responsible for the flock of ewes.

The safety of our sheep flock is in the hands – or should I say “hooves” – of my four camelid co-workers. It is a great responsibility, but one that they seem to accept and embrace as they live out their lives among our sheep flock. I honestly don’t know what I would do without them!

 

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2 Comments

  • ElaineChicago says:

    Such wonderful guardians!! Do you have to train them or do they instinctively know what to do? Such interesting information. Thank you!!

    • Dee says:

      Llamas are natural enemies of canines, so protecting the sheep from them comes once they have formed an attachment. Yet not all llamas will attach to a different species, nor will they all be smart enough to think on their feet to know how to protect the flock. Our guards have been selected specifically for this work because they like sheep, are independent thinkers, and are pretty tough in the field.

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