Like some humans, sheep can rise through the ranks of the flock to a point beyond their capabilities; they can lack confidence in their ability to perform, which creates problems. When this happens, we often see behavior that is intended to hide the insecurity. In hindsight, I believe that this was the case with ObiWan in late 2017.
Our seven breeding groups came back together in late October, and I was very surprised when — for the first time in many years — a Romney, ObiWan, became the leader of the newly recombined ram flock. Only two-and-a-half years old at the time, he was very young for a leader, and as a Romney — a breed known for their stoic nature — I was surprised that he had taken on the older and larger Romeldale rams of the group. Nevertheless, after about 24 hours of tussling in the squeeze pen, ObiWan emerged as the winner and banished both Noa and Pine to the far corner of the paddock, obviously not wanting to risk a possible coup.
Not long after this leadership change, I began to notice a problem when I worked in the ram pen. ObiWan had always been a very sweet-natured ram, but he began to threaten me in various small ways, letting me know that he was boss and I was an intruder. If I had to handle any of the other rams, in even the smallest way, he would lower his head and begin to back up — a precursor to charging at me. He followed me around as I fed each day, and if I got too near any of his rams, he would again look threatening. I began to feel unsafe for the first time in a long while, and I always kept something between us as I moved about the paddock. Although Obi had been quite possessive of the ewes in his breeding group, this post-breeding behavior was new for him, and I didn’t like it. Since I try to promote the genetics of rams who have respectful attitudes, I began to regret my decision in using him for breeding.
ObiWan allowed the exiled rams back into the shelter just before the weather became fierce. I continued to be very careful in my activity among the rams, since I know that a ram who can’t be trusted is dangerous. A few weeks later, I picked up a couple of Romney rams bound for the West Coast. A friend had bought them late in the year and was unable to find a coast-to-coast ride for them from New York, so I offered to overwinter the two if she could get them to Iowa. In mid-November I picked them up from a town about an hour north and brought them back to our farm. After Cary and Sangria’s weeks in quarantine, I converted their space in the Storage Barn to a squeeze pen for the rams. This was the last step in integrating the two new boys into my ram flock for the winter.
When I brought down our adult rams, I could tell that ObiWan saw this as his opportunity to take me out. I literally hid behind the gate as he ran towards it, heading the rams. But then he stopped and stood across the gate from me, waiting for me to make a move. Once he realized that the entire flock had moved into the pen below, he ran to catch up. But even then, he kept looking back to see whether he might still have a chance at me. When he turned the corner into the barn, I ran down and slammed the door shut, trapping all the rams in the Storage Barn. The final step was to open the gate and bring all of the rams into a single stall. And that’s when the fireworks began.
The two new boys assessed the situation so quickly that I have no idea how they did it. They immediately focused on ObiWan, essentially ignoring all of the other rams in the group. The stall that I was using as a squeeze pen was tight for the group, so none of the rams could back up and charge. They had to maneuver around obstacles (feeders, water tank, and other sheep) to get near each other, but as I watched, neither Cary nor Sangria were interested in any other sheep but ObiWan — and they were violent! Again and again, they butted him – front, back or side, it didn’t matter. Every time he raised his head, he was hit. He got in a few hits of his own, but the battle was not even. His flock-mates were obviously unwilling to come to his defense, staying on the edges of the stall, leaving the battle to the three Romneys. I left them to it, wondering how this would eventually turn out.
Hours later, I came back out and Cary, Sangria, and ObiWan were still at it. The other rams had all settled in and were lying around the edges of the stall, cudding. Sometimes ObiWan signaled he’d had enough, lowering his head into a corner and standing there, winded and sore. I would think it was over, but I was wrong. Minutes later, he would raise his head and immediately trigger a pounding from the other two. They worked together to beat him down — and it wasn’t pretty. I know from experience that there is nothing I can do in this situation but to let them work it out. By this time, it was obvious that he was going to lose, but he still wasn’t ready to admit defeat. I could hear the pounding in the Storage Barn continue late into the night. ObiWan is nothing if not stubborn. All he had to do was admit that he was no longer lead ram — but he was not about to give up easily.
I will finish this story on Friday — and the outcome sure surprised me!