Ram management, part 2

The previous post talked a bit about fights for ram hierarchy and that there are different leadership styles for the ram that wins. The laid-back, benevolent leadership style often results in the shepherd not knowing exactly which is the head ram and can mislead the shepherd into allowing behaviors that can cause issues within the flock.

The opposite extreme is the nervous leader — the leader who won by a very narrow margin or whose personality insists that every rule of the flock be followed. Such a leader sees every behavior as a threat. If the shepherd comes in with a bale of hay and bends over to place the hay in the feeder, the lowering of the head is seen as a threatening behavior — and the ram may run at the shepherd as he would with another ram who lowered his head to him. If a bale of hay is lifted over the top of his back, he interprets this as mounting behavior. (A ram will mount another as a show of dominance, with the ram on top challenging the lower ram’s position.) In this situation, it isn’t unusual for the ram to try to head-butt the challenging bale of hay when it appears daily!

This less-confident leader is not necessarily dangerous, but he requires careful management to avoid unintentional confrontations. In this type of situation, I try to never hang over the top or back of the ram, which could be misinterpreted as mounting behavior. I try to avoid blocking the hay after loading it into the feeder, since the ram may insist upon eating the first bite before allowing the other rams to follow. If I block access and another ram takes a bite, the lead ram may see a “need for discipline.”

A nervous leader can also create complications within his group, whether it’s a breeding group or a male-only group during the rest of the year. In either case, he acknowledges a covenant: the other sheep recognize him as their strong and virile leader (proven by his place in the hierarchy), they allow him to reap all the benefits this involves, and in return he will produce the next generation and protect all members of the flock. He is the judge, jury, and executioner within his realm, and the rest of the sheep recognize this (until another ram wins a future challenge).

The ram’s protectiveness can be particularly dangerous for a shepherd. There are often times when we need to enter a group of sheep and handle one or more members, for example, to trim hooves, take a temperature, or change coats. If you view these activities from the ram’s point of view, they take on a threatening tone. The shepherd comes in, chases and catches one of the subordinate members of the flock, then holds it in place as it struggles to be free. If trimming hooves, the shepherd might drop the sheep to the ground — an even worse image for the ram! Is it any wonder that a nervous ram might charge the shepherd and free the flock member? This is a very dangerous situation, but not because the ram is dangerous — it’s dangerous because the shepherd is not aware of the dynamics.

I often suggest that if the lead ram has shown any indication of wanting to free a captured sheep, a special pen should be set up within the confines of the group. The 20- to 25-square-foot pen is anchored to the building or a permanent fence. It should be easily entered by both sheep and people and then easily closed off. I use this pen as a working pen, putting inside any sheep that I need to work with, out of the reach of the protective ram. If the ram is particularly sensitive, I have draped a tarp over the sides of the pen so he cannot see what’s going on.

Most rams fall somewhere between the two extremes: they expect some order within the group — some rules that must be followed — but are easy-going enough that peace generally reigns among the flock. The specifics of each ram are as varied as their personality. Keep in mind that there is a big difference between a nervous or rule-oriented ram (who settles down once the rules are observed) and a mean ram (who randomly charges people for no reason or for his own entertainment). I am not willing to keep a mean ram. Not only do I not want to deal with him on a day-to-day basis, but I also don’t want to risk his meanness being passed to his offspring genetically. There are just too many nice rams around to put up with that!


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