When a non-shepherd looks across a flock of sheep, they generally see a blur of wool and faces, not differentiating one sheep from the next. In reality, nature intended it this way; after all, we are predators, and sheep use flocking to protect themselves from just such creatures. When a wolf or coyote looks at a flock, they see just what we see: a big mass of wool and faces, churning together as they move and run away. A predator intent on a meal must try to differentiate a single sheep from the whole in order to focus on that animal for the kill. The sheep, meanwhile, do their best to keep this from happening. They move as a massive unit, each trying to move into the middle of the flock, creating a challenge for singling out one specific sheep at the outside edge. Since it’s a matter of life and death, over the millennia the sheep have become quite good at it.
Yet for the shepherd of the same flock, scanning across the group is a very different experience for a couple of reasons. First, the shepherd knows all of the faces well, and the flock is filled with ovine friends. I could no more miss seeing them individually than could the average person in seeing their close relatives at a family gathering. Each face brings memories with it: this ewe brought her first lamb to greet me, as her mother did before her (Nisan); that ewe lay at the brink of death and put her head into my lap for comfort as I kept vigil (Kabernet). The flock is filled with memories of past experiences and times we’ve shared. No wonder shepherds often make the ‘mistake’ of saying things like “I’m going to go out and check on the girls that are due today,” when what they mean is the ewes that are due!
Second, each sheep has its own way of interacting with the world — it has its own personality. If you were to cover my sheep in mud so that their wool and markings were unrecognizable, within a few minutes I could sort them out based on behavior alone. I mentioned in Wednesday’s blog that Harmony is “soft” and easily pushed around by more aggressive sheep. There are several soft sheep in our adult flock — Hannah, Maggie, and Nevaeh, among others. Most of the lambs are soft, too, during their first year. This year’s exceptions are (1) Ossidy, a Romeldale/CVM who is shy with people, but pushy and bossy around sheep, (2) Olive, a Romeldale/CVM who is unafraid of pretty much anything, and (3) Osage, a Romeldale/CVM who is (literally!) right behind Olive nearly all the time. Even though I describe each of the pushier girls in these few words, I would have no problem telling them apart based on their behavior. Each is different in the way she meets and addresses the world, and it’s very obvious to me.
The same is true in the adult ewe flock. Some are leaders (Hattie, Hope, Grace and Harmony spring to mind) and others are followers (January, Fern, Jada and Molly, among others). Some are easily spooked (Millie, McKenna and Netty), while others are brave and almost idiotically fearless (Missy, Nypsi, and Koko). Some girls will happily follow me as I walk, not knowing where we are going (January, Harmony, Kali, and Midnight), while others wait to see the goal before deciding to set off (Jada, Fern, and Lolita). It is the combination of many traits that make up a flock — and that allow the flock to function well.
These many individual traits also balance each other. The very nervous girls are calmed by the settled nature of the girls who are never afraid — and those fearless girls show more caution in situations because of the more nervous flock members. The whole is stronger than the parts, because each individual brings her own traits to the group for the good of the overall flock. It is this united front that most people see — but the shepherd sees not only the whole, but also the parts and the way those parts work together.
In the end, this is some of the magic of being a shepherdess: seeing a group of prey animals who not only welcome this human predator that cares for them, but who let down their defenses enough to be who they are, individually, around that predator. Although I am apart and different from them, they trust me enough to allow me into their internal workings. With time, they have accepted me as part of the flock. The young learn very quickly from their mothers that I am safety and security; I am food and water and other good things in life. My presence is not to be feared, but to be celebrated — and there are days in the spring when they do just that. As I arrive at the lamb flock, they kick up their heels and jump for joy as I stand and watch in awe.
Each time the flock gets up from cudding their earlier meal to greet me, or when I call from a quarter mile away and they get up to run towards my voice, I am reminded just how incredible it is to have that strength of trust. There is nothing quite like being a shepherdess — and making so many friends, both human and ovine.