I often write about the activities of the flock: feeding, grazing, breeding, shearing, skirting fleeces, lambing. The list of what we do seems endless — not only to you as readers, but sometimes also to me as the shepherdess. There is a lot to do when keeping sheep. Yet sometimes it is easy to forget why shepherding is such an amazing vocation in the first place. Sometimes I forget to mention the very best part: the coming together of multiple species — in our case, hominids – humans, ovines – sheep, camelids – llamas, and canis lupus – domesticated dogs — in the common goal of sheep-raising. It is this interspecies aspect that first drew me in, because it taps into something deep, and it grounds me as nothing else can.
Like most deeply held feelings, it’s hard to describe to others who have not had a similar experience. As prey animals, sheep are not trusting of new situations or experiences, preferring instead to flee to safer surroundings. New shepherds are often frustrated when their new flock runs away from them and into the far corners of the fields, wishing for nothing more than to find their old stomping grounds and leave this unknown human far behind. I always suggest that the new flock be kept in a smaller area at first and that the shepherd always appear quietly and speak softly, bringing treats or food so that the flock begins to associate that person with good things. As progress is made, the sheep can be released into a larger area, since they now understand that this one person is not a threat.
Eventually the flock accepts the shepherdess as part of itself, and the flock members no longer walk away as the shepherdess approaches. If I sit down at the edge of my flock, my ovine friends will get up and come over to greet me, often lying down at my side or leaning against my back. Soon I’m enveloped by the flock, with closer friends surrounding me and those who feel less comfortable with my presence at a bit more distance — just as the flock normally lies as a group. My closest friends will extend their heads for scratching or rubbing, having learned that this very human behavior is comfortable even though it is so very foreign to sheep nature — no sheep is ever seen patting, rubbing or scratching another sheep! Yet, these good friends and I have exchanged trust and friendship, and in doing so, we have learned each other’s habits; they allow me to scratch and rub while I allow them to lean against me and sometimes rub their sides along my legs. They eat bits of crackers from my fingers. The flock’s acceptance of my presence as part of the whole — in spite of the fact that humans in general are seen as predators and to be avoided — fills me with warmth.
The llamas, too, come into the flock as strangers but are soon accepted. Every time we bring in a new llama, the sheep will at first run from the new guard; yet in a very short time, they come to acceptance and finally friendship, and the llama begins to work at guarding the flock. This period of adjustment can be very short (mere minutes) or may sometimes not happen at all (we had one guard who made no attempt, in her nine months with us, to bond with any of the flock), but we usually see this bonding within a couple of weeks. Howie had been in with our sheep for less than an hour when it was obvious he had already bonded and was hard at work, willing to fight to the death for his new flock. How this happens is hard for me to understand, but there is some bond that forms between sheep and their llama, creating a protector who stands between the sheep and any perceived threat, no matter how bad things might seem. It’s an amazing thing to witness.
Even working dogs like our border collies, who use their predatory behavior to move the sheep, become trusted by the flock. Our sheep have no fear of Coda or Chance — they know that there is a dependable language between the two species. If the dog is in the pasture with the sheep, they know he is under my control, and they can trust that. If the dog moves towards them, they know they are to move in the opposite direction. When the dog swings to another side according to my instructions, they know to again move away from the dog. The entire process is meant to be peaceful and serene. Fearful sheep are not healthy sheep, so it’s important for us to keep everything calm and all movements paced for the sheep’s comfort.
Sitting among my flock may sometimes seem like wasted time. I’m sure my neighbors see me out there in the field and wonder what I’m up to. Yet spending time among the sheep not only strengthens our bond, but also allows me to observe each ewe. The observations I make while sitting there work towards the health of the overall flock, which is only as healthy as each of its members. One weak link weakens the entire chain. So, periodically, I sit among my girls, looking, talking, and rubbing those who come by. It feeds my soul and, at the same time, it strengthens the flock — and there is nothing I would rather do!