Most experienced shepherds know the feeling when one of the flock’s sheep is down. By the time they can no longer stand, they are at death’s door. The shepherd can diagnose the issue and treat them for whatever, but treatment requires time to work. Once a sheep goes down, there is very little time left, and a good shepherd knows this.
Porter has been the bane of my existence almost since his birth. He is a moorit Romeldale, and they are known for being a bit smarter and a bit more gregarious than their black-based counterparts. They are more curious and more interested in interaction — with people, with other living creatures, and even with equipment and tools, often stealing whatever we’ve set down and then running off into the field with it. We have been breeding to “tame” the moorits, but every once in a while, we still get one that drives us crazy. This year, it’s been Porter. When young, he would steal my phone or take my gloves. As he grew older, he began to follow me around and “thump” the top of his head into the back of my legs.
No amount of “retraining” has been able to teach Porter that his behavior is unacceptable. He was long ago slated for the auction or the meat industry, since I could not have such a troublesome ram sold for breeding. Yet as the summer has progressed, I’ve come to realize that Porter would be too much a threat even at the auction. He has taken a run at me several times in the pasture and will continue to become more dangerous as he matures. I cannot allow him to harm others, so for weeks we have known, sad as it is, that he is destined for the meat locker. Yet this destination does not change my insistence that he, like all of our lambs, have the very best quality of life that he can while he is here.
Several weeks ago, we split our ram lambs from the ewe lambs. The ewe lambs now move with the adult ewes into each new field, and the rams — both lambs and adults — come into that same field on the next round. The first into the field, the ewes have pristine and highly nutritious grazing; but the rams come in later, after the ewes’ manure is scattered throughout the field. After an entire summer’s rotation, the fields have built up quite a level of internal parasite eggs. We watch for symptoms, but a lamb can go from doing well to doing really badly within a very short time. The ram lambs are currently the most susceptible.
When it came time to move Porter this past weekend, it became obvious to me that he was not doing well. I always watch the last of each group to see which sheep are lagging, since they are the most likely to have a leg injury or to be anemic or weak from internal parasites. I saw that Porter had suddenly become very thin, and when we caught him, he was severely anemic. No wonder he had not tried charging me the last few days. He was quite literally at death’s door.
Porter and several other of our thin or weak ram lambs have been pulled from the flock and taken up to our barn, where they are now on a diet of hay. This will allow them to avoid reinfection by the parasites that are so abundant in our fields this year and will allow us to feed a bit of grain to help them gain weight and strength more quickly. Yet I worry about Porter. He’s giving me that queasy feeling — the feeling we all know so well. The not knowing whether we will find a happy and bouncy sheep on its way to recovery, or the exact opposite. The worry that when we enter the space — house, barn or field — we may find death. No matter how hard we fight, it can happen in the blink of an eye.
And right now, Porter will not come with the others for grain. He lies in the paddock as if he has given up. He has both food and water within reach, but is that enough? I’ve had sheep who were worse than Porter recover well, but they fought to do so. Porter doesn’t seem to want to fight, he wants to quit — and that is such a surprise when I think of the ram lamb I thought I knew. I wait, I pray, and I hope. I don’t know how things will go for Porter, but the one thing I do know is this: he will only live if he wants to live — and wants it badly. For now I can only keep checking on him, experiencing that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach as I go.