Rick and I rarely leave the farm during the non-grazing season because there is so much going on here at that time of year. Honestly, it is hard to prepare to leave and even harder once we get back and need to catch up. Yet between Rick’s business trip in Washington, DC, last month followed by the visit with our son and daughter-in-law for the birth of our first grandchild, we were gone nearly three weeks. It was a trip we wouldn’t have missed, but we’ve been playing catch-up ever since.
There are always changes on the farm in our absence, no matter how short or long a time we were away. When I’m here, the daily changes are subtle and I hardly notice them: a slight shift in feeding time to accommodate the changing daylight, or feeding hay from the loft when we use up what was stored in the stall below. After three weeks, there are a lot of these small, seemingly insignificant changes to suddenly adjust to! It can seem like a whole different routine in the first days back, trying to adjust to the new status quo.
Yet there are very welcome changes too. Over the three weeks that we were gone, one of last year’s shy ewe lambs — Hope’s daughter Patience — obviously reconsidered her relationship with me. On my first day back feeding the flock, she sought me out and stood right in front of me, obviously looking for some type of interaction. It’s unusual for the young gals to come forward in this way. The older ewes often come to me for head scratches or chin rubs, but such a relationship has usually developed over time. There is nothing to bond a shepherdess to a particular ewe like helping her deliver a lamb through a challenging birth. They seem to know that I’ve fixed a difficult situation, and they often develop a level of trust that doesn’t happen any other way.
Yet Patience has no such experience with me. Like most of the ewe lambs her age, most of her experiences with me are either neutral or negative. Over the past months, I’ve changed their coats at least six or seven times, have given them vaccinations and doses of nasty-tasting dewormer. Yes, I do bring the food, but the food comes whether the sheep approach me or not — and after the ewe lambs’ other experiences with me, they often conclude that distance is their friend.
For some unknown reason, Patience has recently shifted her mindset about me. When I left the farm, she was happy to stand back with the other ewe lambs as I fed the flock, waiting for me to leave before approaching the bales to eat. If I wanted to check her temperature or change a coat, I had to trap her with the rest of the flock in a smallish area where she had nowhere to go, or I had to bring out a dog to convince her not to run.
On my first day back, when Patience came and stood resolutely before me, I was curious as to what she wanted. It was obvious that she was looking for some particular behavior, since she stood expectantly, refusing to move and let me pass. Since I had just been patting and scratching my older sheepy friends who had come forward to welcome me back, I decided to see whether Patience might move if I touched her — as most lambs her age would. My initial goal was not so much to make friends, as I figured that was an unlikely ending to this face-off. I was actually thinking that reaching for her might move her out of my way and allow me to get the hay that lay just beyond her. I reached forward with my right hand to touch her head, and surprisingly, she lifted her chin in response. Patience appeared to want a chin scratch!
I slowly lowered my hand to scratch under her chin, and her head relaxed into it. With eyelids dropping to half-mast, she stood there in the barn aisle, enjoying a pleasant scratch that, as far as I knew, she had never before experienced! Even the most trusting ewe usually takes several attempts to realize that a chin scratch is enjoyable!
Since then, Patience has been coming forward for a daily chin scratch. I checked with our farm sitter, Seth, to see whether he taught her this behavior in my absence, but he knew nothing about it. She has obviously come to befriend me on her own and not as a result of some connection with another human being while we were gone. Patience has decided. for whatever reason, that I am trustworthy and safe. I will admit that this change in flock dynamics — this new friendship — is a change that I very much cherish.