Sheep depend on their flock for protection, hiding in plain sight among dozens or even hundreds of other sheep who, to any predator, look nearly identical. Within that blur of sheep, an individual is difficult, if not impossible, to pick out from the rest. Over the many years of observing my relatively small flock, I’ve come to know that sheep have personalities and that each interacts with the world in their own way.
Some tend to view humans with suspicion, while others are particularly friendly. Some spook easily, while others will happily stand as I change a coat or pick a burr out of their wool. The more time one spends with the flock, the more these contrasts become obvious, so Rick and several of our farm helpers also know and recognize the different temperaments within the group.
When you keep sheep, you see another contrast as well: the difference between rams and ewes. Whether this sex-based distinction is obvious depends on the farm’s flock management. For example, if there is only one ram for a small number of ewes (as in many starter flocks), then the ram/ewe difference is often thought of as a difference in personalities. And in a very big flock — where there may be dozens of rams housed together — the shepherd often has little interaction with the group other than to dump feed and move on, which can mean missing the group’s interactions and the insight that could bring.
Perhaps the greatest insight comes when dealing with ram groups having between three and fifteen members. With this number, you can recognize each as an individual as well as see how the rams interact with each other and with you.
Ewes are pretty easy-going. They eat and drink, grow wool, and look for a ram to sire their lambs. You can add a new ewe to a flock relatively easily since the ewe group eventually accepts all newcomers. Although there may be a bit of brief infighting over food or another resource, it seldom lasts long and is almost never serious. Ewes are generally the epitome of “as gentle as a sheep.”
Rams can seem like another creature altogether! First and most obvious, rams will fight for dominance and leadership of the group or for a good position in the established hierarchy. Although this is true at any time of year, it is most evident before and during the breeding season — and for some breeds, this is ten months of the year! It is for this reason that whenever a ram is introduced to a group, it must be done within the confines of a squeeze pen, a small pen which allows the rams to stand and lie down but not to back up and/or charge each other. This prevents injury from the pushing and shoving that occurs as they work out the new hierarchy.
Even a well-established group of rams will occasionally be thrown into chaos as one of the rams lower in the hierarchy makes a play at improving his station. In this situation, the ram pen becomes a very dangerous place as rams fight to keep their position or move up. When this type of fighting has broken out here on our farm (it has happened only a couple of times over the years), I won’t even enter to feed them. I simply throw their hay over the fence, staying safely on the outside until the group settles down — usually in a day or two.
When the chaos settles, it’s possible that the overthrown leader may be exiled to the far side of the enclosure. The new leader has just fought off all of the competition and can feel threatened by the presence of the ram he overthrew. In that case he may cast him out of the group, leaving him to fend for himself. When this has happened in my own flock, the exiled ram has been allowed to return to the group weeks later, but in the meantime I provided him a ration of hay and water separate from the rest of the group but within sight — otherwise I’m not sure he would have survived.
The behavior of any group of rams is influenced by its leader. Some are very easy-going, and in that situation, pretty much anything goes. Because a soft, benevolent leader doesn’t need to assert himself, it may be difficult for the shepherd to recognize which ram actually rules the group. The one downside of getting used to a low-key ram is that the shepherd can be lulled into behaviors (such as ignoring the leader, bending nearby with the head down, or carrying bales above the back of the leader) that could cause dangerous issues with a ram having a more belligerent style. These behaviors will be explained a bit more in the upcoming post.
In short, whether there is an easy-going or an aggressive ram leading the flock, the shepherd should ALWAYS keep an eye on the ram, knowing where he is and what he is doing. Vigilance is paramount for working among sheep safely — and particularly among rams!