This is the time of year when we reconfigure our flock for the coming breeding season. I constantly tell new shepherds that hard decisions must be made for the good of the flock and its future. Without those choices, the flock doesn’t move forward and cannot remain competitive in the market, which will eventually threaten their livelihood. One of our first steps when making these decisions is dividing the lambs into groups: those that will stay to breed, those that will be sold to breed elsewhere, and those that will not be considered breeding quality. The latter may be sold as fiber animals or at auction this fall. Our adults, too, are carefully considered. Some of them are put onto sale lists because they are wonderful producers but genetic duplicates within our flock. Others end up on cull lists because they have done their work too well, producing lambs that are improvements on the parental traits and that will replace them in our flock. Other ewes or rams will end up at auction because they have some unexpected fault that should not be passed on to the next generation or to the next flock or shepherd. These are the hardest for my heart, since I know their long-term prospects are poor.
Every sheep on our acreage is considered and reconsidered: what would they bring to the flock and/or the next generation? Do they represent our farm well (since they will wear our eartags for the rest of their lives, no matter where they live)? Do they carry a trait or bloodline that we need to keep, or are they duplicates of other productive members? I sift and sort and try not to let my heart influence the results. After seventeen years, I know how important this process is. After all of this work is done and all the “extra” sheep are sold and gone, I look out over the flock every year and realize that, yes, we are once again better off with those sheep moved out. My goals are always for the best interests of the flock as a whole. And as much as it might hurt, I cannot allow the interests of a single ewe to come out ahead of the interests of the flock. If the flock fails, the entire group goes down and is no more — and that is something I cannot allow to happen. As their shepherdess, I must hold the good of the flock above all else, although it pains me to do so sometimes.
So I work my way down the lists, playing matchmaker between people looking for sheep and those sheep that I have available. At this point in the summer, our first deliveries are being made, and at least once or twice a week, I am hugging one or more of our beloved sheep and saying goodbye. I load them into a truck or trailer, and tell them that it will be a good change for them, that I have carefully chosen the best placement for them, and that they will be okay with new friends and a new home. The hardest to load are the older girls who have been here all of their lives. They don’t know what is happening, and they do not understand why I have pushed them into this strange vehicle. Where are all of their friends? My heart aches as I tell them goodbye and tears spring to my eyes, but again I keep telling myself that I’ve found them a good place (which is always a challenge with the old ones, but I keep working at it until I do), and they will be well-loved. It is a less than satisfying truth, however.
This process is stressful both for the sheep and for me, but it is a necessary evil that cannot be avoided. If we are to continue breeding, some sheep must be sold away to make room for the new lambs. We are lucky to sell most of our sheep to repeat customers who keep me updated on the sheep they buy from me. Other sheep go to new friends, people who are excited to be at the starting gate of a new venture and excited to bring in this new flock to get them going. Since I offer to mentor each of these new shepherds, I often hear of newborn lambs and friendships made within these sheep that were once my own. It warms me to know they are doing well as the years go by.
Saying goodbye is never easy, particularly when the previous years have been all about befriending my sheep and keeping them happy and well. Yet it is a critical part of what I do. I just can’t expect it to be easy as I continue to say my goodbyes this summer.