The dreaded bridge

Since I work with animals more often than with people, I often finding myself trying to understand what they are thinking or why they do the things they do. I think the sheep are easier to understand than the llamas. Whether it is because of their numbers or just because of the way they think, I can much more easily wrap my head around what they do than I can with my observations of the llamas. This blog is about one of those observations.

Summer normally guards the rams, but refuses to cross the bridge in the Pond Pasture.

Summer normally guards the rams, but she refuses to cross the bridge in the Pond Pasture.

We currently have four llamas who guard our sheep. For most of the year, Summer (our only female llama) resides with the rams . She is the only one who is tough enough to handle the rough shenanigans of the big guys, and she seems to enjoy putting them in their place from time to time. Since we move the sheep quite often (typically more than once a week), Summer has had to learn to move with her guys. This was not an easy concept to teach. For quite a while, we had to move the rams and then follow up by chasing Summer with the ATV until she, too, went into the new field. She has now finally figured out that the new place will have much better grazing — and if she doesn’t move with the rams, she will eventually be forced to move — so she happily follows me to the new field whenever I open a gate and call.

Actually, it works this way for most moves. There is one glitch to this smoothly running operation: the dreaded bridge! You see, the Pond Pasture has a swampy area that empties into the pond. Years ago, we built a bridge where the marsh joins the pond, creating a shortcut between the area north of the pond and the smaller grazing area to the south. It’s a sturdy wooden bridge about six feet wide that is used by not only Rick and me, but by mowers, sheep, and llamas — all but Summer. Summer refuses to cross the bridge!

Lambs learning that not only can they cross the marsh via this bridge, but that their hooves make an interesting noise as they cross – leading to a lot of jumping and playing on the wooden structure each year!

When we first replaced the earlier, narrow bridge with this wider, sturdier version, the sheep refused to cross too. We left them in the Pond Pasture to marvel at this new construction, and eventually — within a few days — the lambs began to make their way across. Watching the first lambs cross made the rest of the lambs braver, and they, too, ran across. Eventually all of our sheep began to use the bridge as a shortcut across the draw. Even better, each year’s new lambs discover that the sound of their hooves on the bridge is very drum-like. It isn’t unusual for them to stand on the bridge at dusk and play, sending the sounds of their drumming hooves echoing through the gathering dusk.

The bridge has been in place for at least ten years now. Although all of the other animals consider it a normal part of the field and happily cross whenever the need arises, Summer does not. To her, it is obviously a creation to be avoided, bringing only discomfort and fear. As soon as the rams run down the hill and across the bridge to get to their new grazing, Summer’s gaze begins to dart about, looking for a way out. Sometimes she chooses to go all the way around the pond to the east, and at other times along the long, swampy draw to the west. In either case, there is no way to coax her across — she is absolutely determined to avoid that bridge. Summer will take the long way and eventually join her group on the other side.

I have tried to coax Summer across this man-made creation in a number of ways. I’ve tried bribing with a bucket of grain and other treats, leading with a halter — anything to get her across. She happily refuses the bribes, running instead to a far-off corner; and she pulled the lead rope from my hands, leaving them rope-burned. Summer is big and strong; and if she doesn’t want to go somewhere, she knows she has the strength to resist. What is it about that awful bridge that makes Summer — our fiercest and most determined llama — so fearful? I have no idea. It doesn’t move or flex, and the distance to the soil beneath the water is short enough that she could easily step down; she would get her feet wet, but that isn’t unusual. She just plain hates the bridge!

Whatever it is that makes Summer so uncomfortable will likely stay locked within her. All I know is that when we move the rams, we must figure in time for Summer to take the long road around the dreaded bridge before eventually catching up with her boys on the other side. It’s simply one of the quirks of keeping Summer to guard our flock — and heaven knows we each have our quirks!

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