Unlike during lambing, this time of year is one where the work load is still fairly heavy, but in well-defined chunks of time: I feed all of our sheep in the morning, checking on health and well-being as I dole out hay and, in some cases, grain.Then I make a bottle run for our bottle lamb Quaker in the early afternoon and again in the evening just after dark.
Whenever I am among the flock – any part of the flock – an understood part of my work is to monitor the sheep in that area for illness, injury, or trouble of any kind. As I listen to the rhythmic sucking of Quaker at her beloved bottle, I am also listening for coughing, looking for limping, doling out pats and scratches, and generally looking over the flock around me. In fact, I find that the best time to do this is at the last bottle of the day. By then, most of the sheep have found a nice comfy spot for the night and everything is fairly quiet. If there is any rattly breathing or coughing, it is much easier to hear in the silence of the still night air.
As part of this flock monitoring, I have learned to notice and mentally record changes of any kind among the sheep and their behavior. Although not always an indicator of trouble, I have more than once looked at a particular activity and wondered to myself when that specific thing began to happen – if only I had noticed the beginning, I would have had much more information to work with down the road. As a result, any changes from the norm end up filed away for future possible use – no matter what it might be.
It was in this way that I initially noticed that the ewes and their lambs were a bit less settled than normal beginning about the middle of last week. We have a number of barn cats that live in either of our two barns, and their coming and going is not normally paid any attention by our sheep. At this time of year in the Sheep Barn, there are so many young curious lambs and protective adult ewes that I leave a window open at the back of the barn to allow the cats access. By coming in through this window, they have a shorter trek across “lamb land” where the young ones will chew on tails or ears, head-butt to see whether cats butt back, and generally annoy our resident cats. I have many times sat in the barn in the evening only to hear a ruckus in the back of the barn, and turn to see one of our barn cats jump up into the open window, sharpen its claws on the wooden frame there, and then make a dash across the straw on the floor, headed to the off-limits-to-sheep hay stack where the mouse population somehow never reaches zero. Although I have turned to watch a cat make its way in, the sheep continue to lie and cud as if this intruder were a figment of my imagination.
Yet, in the middle of last week, I was in the Sheep Barn feeding Quaker her last bottle of the day when I heard the familiar calling of my cat Allegro, and then the thumping of his jump up to the window. This time, however, instead of totally ignoring his entrance, the sheep panicked and all ran for the front of the barn and onto the dark driveway where we have extended their space. I thought it odd that they would suddenly be so afraid of the cats, and wondered what else might have scared them – but it wasn’t long before I returned to listening to Quaker’s sucking on the bottle and forgot about the whole thing.
On Friday, I was filling the creep feed for the lambs in the Sheep Barn, setting out flakes of hay and then filling the four grain troughs in the creep area when I noticed that one of the troughs was empty – totally empty. Now, I know that lambs begin to increase their intake of grain at about this age, so I wasn’t totally surprised, but it was a bit odd for them to eat so much all at once. I usually see a gradual increase in the amount of grain I set out rather than a suddenly empty feeder. I filled the feeder and topped off the others, and on Saturday, the lambs were back to their usual intake – but the whole empty feeder seemed odd to me, and I thought about it several times over the weekend.
Then, this morning I was finishing my chores up at the ram shelter, emptying hay feeders and looking the boys over when I heard a strange noise. I paused to listen more closely, but all I could hear was the sound of heads crashing together outside the shelter where the rams were celebrating the imminent appearance of their daily hay ration. I got a bale of hay out of the storage building, and brought it back into the shelter to load it into the hay feeder when I again heard what sounded to be a soft chittering sound. Once more, I paused to listen more closely, but the sound again disappeared before I could identify its source. I finished with the hay and walked outside the building, looking at the three walls and the roof, hoping to figure out what I was hearing, but there was nothing there. Nothing.
Finally, I again entered the ram shelter with the last hay bale and loaded it into the feeder when I suddenly heard a different sound – this time a definite hissing that sounded nothing if not threatening. There was something very unhappy with my presence in the ram shelter – and when I finally found the something, everything I have mentioned here suddenly made so much sense! I’ve attached a photo that I took of the shelter – can you find the source of the sounds, the nervous young lambs and their mamas, and the disappearing grain? Look closely! I guess it’s time to clean up my traps again.