Talking to the sheep

Harmony_face_2014It’s no secret that I talk to my sheep. Actually, I’m pretty well known for conversing with my ovine friends — to the point that many people eventually ask me, teasing, “Do they answer you?” My answer is always the same: “Most of the time, but usually not verbally!” When you get to know your flock as well as I know mine, they usually do give me an answer to any question, even if they don’t speak to me in American English. It is simply a matter of patience and understanding — and wanting to hear them.

Although my sheep and I talk quite often, they don’t generally talk to strangers. Most other people who come and go from their lives don’t care to talk, and they act much more like the predators they are, leaving the sheep to feel that a real conversation isn’t possible. After all, who sits down to tea with the wolf who wants to eat their child? Other people in my flock’s lives are more about action — usually unpleasant action, like the vet. He doesn’t really care what they have to say. He’s on a schedule and just wants to finish with them and be off to the next stop. He is much more about what I have to say than with anything the sheep might tell him. The sheep understand, though, that their relationship with their shepherd is different than with other people.

A true shepherd cares about his or her sheep. A true shepherd spends a lot of time with the flock, both during lambing and at other times of the year. As a result, the conversations begin and friendships are made. Ewes bring their lambs to meet this odd human who doesn’t look like they are going to eat the babies, and deeper friendships develop with those lambs too. Over the years, good friends come into the flock and others leave or die, but the flock trusts the shepherd and the conversations become two-sided.

Sometimes there are a few people who visit the flock and they, too, are invited into the conversation. My sheep recognize a fellow shepherdess within minutes. My ovine friends will come forward for introductions, very unlike their behavior with strangers or the vet. There is something that identifies these people as different, and I always wonder whether we have somehow been trained in the ways of sheep. Do they recognize us by the way we walk into a flock or the way we turn to talk to particular sheep? Or do they simply smell the other flock on us, like some kind of special pass that allows us in? I don’t know, but when my friend Melissa came to visit last week and we walked among the flock, it was obvious that they knew: she was a friend to them, without question.

Even more interesting is my young helper, Seth, who has been assisting on our farm for about a year and a half. He used to tease me a bit about talking to the sheep. “Can you talk to them like Dr. Doolittle?” I would smile and tell him that everyone talks to their friends — and my friends just happen to be sheep. I’m sure he thought I was crazy, but we each went about our work, and I found him to be very helpful with the sheep. He had a knack for this shepherding thing, and that earns big points with me. Anyone that good with sheep can come anytime! I began to wonder how the sheep would treat him as their relationship developed. After all, he wasn’t really a shepherd, but he kind of acted like it sometimes. Hmm.

We did a lot of work around the farm this past weekend, and I had several kids here to help me, including Seth. Sometimes there are things that are easier to do with only experienced helpers, so I let the others leave and then the two of us focused on finishing the rest of the list.McKinley_face_2015

Ready for our next chore, I pulled the truck up to the barn and scanned the dark inside, looking for Seth. I saw him bent over and talking to one of the ewes and her twin lambs. She had her face lifted, looking at him as her lambs played tag around his ankles. As I sat in the truck, I watched the interaction between human and ovid — man and sheep — an interaction that dates back millennia.

As the two finished their conversation, Seth came out to the truck and hopped in next to me. I couldn’t resist; I had to ask, “Did I just see you talking to a sheep? Did she answer?” Seth turned to me and smiled, “Pretty much — but not like you’d think.” Obviously, there is more shepherd in this young man than I had realized. No wonder he is such a huge help! And I think the flock thinks so too. But honestly, I’ll have to ask them to be sure.

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  • Erika says:

    I always talk to my sheep. When I was at the Cornell Sheep and Goat Symposium last fall I introduced myself to a sheep I was about to obtain a fecal sample from. The nice young man holding the sheep thought I was introducing myself to him. When I explained I was introducing myself to the sheep since I felt we should be on a first name basis since I was about to “violate” the ewe he looked at me like I was strange. I hope the sheep appreciated the introduction. She didn’t seem to mind the “violation.”

  • Elaine says:

    I like to think that we all talk to our animals, no matter what kind they are. Perhaps it shows a deeper feeling and connection between us. Thanks for McKinley’s

  • Eileen says:

    What a lovely story! I hope this young man continues to work with sheep, and other animals too.

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