As a shepherd, I work with sheep daily; in fact, most people would correctly say that I work with a flock of sheep. The term flock is defined by vocabulary.com as “a group of animals, like birds or sheep, that have congregated together.” This definition is technically correct, but when you do the work that I do, you realize that it leaves so much out. Reading this definition would have one thinking that a flock of sheep is very like a group of people, perhaps at a train station waiting for a train. Yet, in reality, a flock is so very much more – at least when it comes to sheep!
You see, a flock of sheep is not only about the grouping. To me, this definition infers a gathering of individuals with their personalities and individual goals who all happen to be in the same place. With sheep, the flock can almost be viewed as a living thing in its own right; there are the individual sheep that make up the flock, and yet there is the flock itself that unites them to a common purpose: survival. When I think of my flock, I first think of the organism that is the flock and then, only after that, do I begin to think of the individual personalities that exist within the group with which I have relationships.
Let me give you an example. Last night just before bed, I stood at the front door after letting the dogs in from their last trip out for the day. As I stood there, ready to close the door, I heard the flock calling out in the night air – and that set off alarm bells in my mind. Why would this perfectly happy flock be making so much noise in this dark night, giving themselves away to nearby predators? They knew it would take only one dog or coyote to create a disaster after hearing their location and coming to look for a meal or a bit of fun. Something had to be terribly wrong to risk the entire flock in this way. I quickly grabbed a jacket and went out into the night to see what was wrong. This was not an individual sounding the alarm – it was the flock, itself.
As I stepped off of the front porch, I slowly made my way in the dark, knowing that using my flashlight would only scare the group that I was trying to find. As a result, I walked slowly and carefully towards the calls, letting the sound of their voices guide my steps. As I got closer, I realized that what I was hearing was a call-reply; there was one member of the flock separated from the main unit, and the group was exchanging calls with that individual. Back and forth they called, again and again. I aimed my steps towards the individual, now realizing that the flock was risking its own safety trying to bring this lost sheep home.
Slowly but surely, my eyes adjusted to the darkness around me and I was able to make out the reflection of two eyes about sheep height on the driveway near the Sheep Barn. Somehow, one of the ewes had become separated from the flock and her lambs waiting there, and found herself outside of the fenced pasture. I couldn’t tell who it was except that she was very dark in color, blending into the night. This presented a real problem, since getting her back into the pasture meant I needed her to follow me – and few of my good friends within the flock were so dark in color. I knew it was unlikely that this sheep would follow a human alone in the dark – and it was equally unlikely that she would remain calm enough to herd into place with one of my dogs in the existing situation. As I considered my options, both this ewe and the flock became silent – they could sense that there was now a predator out among them. Unrecognized, I was that predator. I quickly decided to try the easiest option first: offer to take her back to the organism she so missed – the flock.
All of my sheep know my voice – even if they aren’t particular friends of mine. Our adult ewes and rams are all trained to follow my call, although some are better at this than others as they are all encouraged by the flock around them. I began to call this ewe towards me, hoping against hope that she would move forward even without her friends. After a few calls, I could see her looking at me and then turning to look back towards the Sheep Barn that is so familiar. Thankfully, she slowly made the decision to come forwards towards me. As I called, the flock began to call, too, adding their voices to mine, encouraging her forwards. Slowly, this ewe and I walked towards the gate to the pasture – she, obviously afraid that this was a trap, and me, afraid that as I opened the gate for her, the flock would flow out to greet her rather than allowing her to walk in to them.
When we approached the gate, the flock was there to meet us, having moved into position as I had tried to solve the problem. I held my breath as I opened the gate sending up a silent prayer that they would allow the ewe in without pushing forward out of the pasture. With the gate opened just enough to allow her to pass, the lost ewe walked past me and into the flock that parted before her. As I closed the gate, the calling that echoed in the night air died down and they surrounded her, reclaiming her as one piece of the many. The lost sheep had been found, and the flock was once again whole.
Yes, a flock is a group of animals that congregate together, but it is also so much more. It is a living organism that is tightly bonded because it is more than the sum of the parts. It is safety in numbers, and knowing that the loss of even one from the group of many weakens the whole.