The human headgate

Like any other endeavor, shepherding has its own share of equipment, some things that are fairly necessary and others that can often be worked around — and which category any one item falls into is often dependent upon the shepherd. One tool that many shepherds find useful is something called the headgate. This is a contraption that essentially holds a ewe with her head between two posts; she cannot move forward because her shoulders are too wide, and she cannot move backwards because her head is too big. When in the headgate (shown on the left), the ewe can stand up, lie down, and turn her head in either direction, but she can’t leave the area. We have never used one ourselves, but I’ve been told that they are particularly helpful when a ewe refuses to acknowledge or feed one or more of her lambs. Once stuck in the head gate, she cannot head-butt her lamb and cannot squirm away in an attempt to keep it from nursing. They quickly get used to their situation and, within a few days, are often willing to nurse all of their lambs, which allows the ewe to be freed from the headgate.

The reason I’m explaining the use of the headgate is that I currently have three very small Romney ewe lambs (born last year) who are in the lambing barn because they need a higher level of nutrition if they are to grow well. They are not getting as much as the high-nutrition group, but by being in this barn, they get alfalfa hay (which is higher in protein, making for better growth) and also a bit of grain. The problem is that they are so small that they can fit into places that no one would expect a sheep to fit.

This problem becomes particularly difficult when it is time to feed grain to ewes in the high-nutrition group. I currently have seven ewes getting grain, and because they are housed in the same barn as the many bred girls who do not get a grain ration, they eat that grain out of buckets. Each ewe has her own bucket in a particular color. The buckets are labelled so that we know which bucket belongs to which ewe (although by now, I know them all without looking at the labels). Each ewe has gotten to know her bucket color and generally comes when I lift it high for her to see. Occasionally one of the ewes will try to get into a bucket that isn’t hers, but since that has not worked for her before — and I won’t let her into it when she tries — she soon realizes that the forbidden grain in the bucket is keeping her from the alfalfa hay that her flockmates are devouring. She moves on and leaves the bucket to the proper ewe.

The problem is that these little Romneys are small enough — and their heads are pointed enough — that they can wedge their little heads into the bucket next to the adult ewe who belongs there. I know from experience that if any of the non-grain ewes happen to successfully get a mouthful while I’m not looking, they will repeatedly come back for more, making both my life and the life of the grain-fed ewe miserable. The key is to prevent them from ever getting that first bite. But these little Romneys (Quella, Quebec, and Qloe) are really good at this game, and I’ve been unable to keep them out.

The worst of the three is Quebec. After these many weeks, I’ve finally convinced Qloe that she will get her own bucket, so she now eats at the hay until I call her with her bucket raised. Quella is not nearly so polite and can at times be a bit of a pain, scooting under the ewe who’s eating and then sliding beneath her and into the bucket — or diving in right alongside the ewe while I am chasing another ewe off. Yes, Quella can be a problem, but the issues I have with her are fairly normal and are finally showing improvement. I think her behavior was so bad because she had been led by her friend Quebec, last year’s daughter of McKinley. And Quebec is making me crazy!

She is crazed over the grain, and she doesn’t care who knows it. She will leap onto a ewe’s back and slide down her neck to get to the bucket. She will wedge her little head into the bucket next to even the largest ewes. (Both Gabby and Heavenly are getting buckets this year, and she has been in the bucket with both of these big girls!) She pushes and shoves, climbs and jumps. There is no effort that is too much, as long as she has the possibility of getting a bite of some other ewe’s grain.

For a while, I thought that if I offered her grain before the others, she would happily eat and then go away. But no — she is in it all the way. She wants the grain from all of the buckets for herself, and for her own health, I cannot let that happen!

The human head gate in action: Qloe to the left and Quebec in the make-shift head gate between my legs.

So after weeks of pushing her away, flapping my loose glove in her face (as an annoyance), holding her back, distracting her, and using every other trick I know, I have finally found a way to control her: the human headgate. When she begins to make a nuisance of herself, I simply trap her head between my legs. Like in a purchased headgate, she cannot go forward and she cannot go back; she must stand or lie there, watching the other ewe eat. In the photo on the right, you will notice Qloe (usually the last to eat her grain) eating from her blue bucket. If you look closely, you will also notice Quebec’s little pointy head (to the right of Qloe) sticking out between my legs. Quebec is trapped in this position until bucket feeding ends to avoid her problematic behavior!

I will admit that this is the culmination of weeks of trouble with Quebec, but it sure does seem to work! Most years, it takes me only a  week or two before bucket feeding is a calm and peaceful time, with each ewe knowing her bucket color and coming when it is her time. This year it has taken me four weeks of struggle and chaos with stubborn Quebec, but finally bucket feeding is settling down. I keep telling Quebec that I will release her if she will just go, eat hay, and leave us alone — but so far, that is asking just a bit too much!

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