For many years now, we have kept llamas as guardians for our sheep. We often have to decide which of the four llamas goes into which group. Sometimes we have more sheep groups than llamas and need to run one or more groups without protection. At other times we need to put more than one llama into a single group of sheep because we have less than four groups. I don’t much worry about their placement other than to give each llama a group of sheep that they like. I know they will guard wherever they end up, so they might as well enjoy the sheep they are with.
When I recently decided to combine the big adult rams with the younger rams who are now becoming yearlings, I didn’t much think about the fact that Summer, most recently in with the adult rams, would now be in the same group as Orbit, who had been with the younger boys. Summer and Orbit have a bit of a history before our farm. Although we bought them at different times, they had been fast friends at their previous farm. In fact, when we first brought them together here, we had to be careful not to place them in adjoining groups, because they spent the entire time near each other rather than guarding their sheep. Yet that was a long time ago, and they have both become very good guards. Besides that, they had shared the fence line between the rams for many months. I assumed that they would come together and jointly guard the larger ram group. Until yesterday.
Rick and I had just finished chores in the lambing barn, preparing for the predicted overnight snowstorm, when I noticed that there was skirmishing going on in the ram pen. Thinking that perhaps some of the older rams were giving some of the small guys like Peter a hard time, I took a closer look. As I watched, I realized that there were no rams involved in the “fighting.” Instead, Summer and Orbit were wrestling with each other, each trying to flip or pin the other. This play fighting went on for quite a long time as I watched, spellbound. I had never known that they did this type of thing!
As I watched, I realized that they seemed to be “practicing their moves” — behaving just as we have seen them behave against a predator adversary. The only difference was the intensity of the battle. While fighting each other, the llamas would back off and begin again as soon as it was obvious that one had “won the round.” They repeatedly began again, trying to pin each other down to the ground or flip each other’s legs into the air. I snapped picture after picture from the safety of our parlor, entranced by what I was seeing and knowing that they would likely stop if they knew that I was watching. Eventually I tried to get a better picture from outside, and as expected, they both stopped and looked a bit embarrassed, their ninja moves done for the day.
In hindsight it seems obvious that guardian llamas might practice different moves or use play fighting as a release when working with another llama. But it was something I had never considered. Even after all these years, our animals can still surprise me.