Starting the grazing in our pastures and rotating the flock from one field to the next is a complicated thing each spring. We try to get them grazing early enough that we don’t run out of hay yet not so early that they set back the pasture growth for the year. It is never the same from year to year due to the many variables involved. In addition, because the lambs are still so young, we continue to provide them with shelter in the barn for another few weeks. This means that over the past couple of weeks, the first fields grazed have been those immediately around the barns.
The ewes and their lambs have been grazing the Pond Pasture for about a week now. The lambs have had no experience with how things work during grazing and so had no idea that the red gates scattered throughout our fencing system actually open and close. This morning I opened the gate from the Pond Pasture to the Rock Pasture to allow for better grazing and created instant mayhem!
The ewes knew what I was doing as soon as I began the walk towards the four-foot gate to the Pond Pasture. As is my habit, I called to the girls during my entire walk, bringing them from all corners of their current pasture to follow me as I neared the gate. My plan was that the lambs would hear their mothers calling in response to my call and would follow the ever-growing parade towards the Rock Pasture. And it worked, kind of.
As I called, more and more adult ewes and lambs joined the walk to the gate. When I opened the gate to the new field, the group funneled through the narrow gate without issue, lambs running between the mothers’ legs and ewes hopping over the wet area just inside the gate. Once they settled in, it all looked perfect — a pastoral scene fit for a postcard — until I turned towards the barn to finish up some chores. That’s when I saw a huddle of about a dozen lambs standing just outside the barn, crying for their mommas. They had been left behind.
I knew there was no way their mothers were going to leave a field of new grass to come and get these babies; and I also knew that the babies would stress until they were back at their mothers’ sides. I walked back up to the barn, went around the far side, and decided to herd the group down to the gate, repeating the walk I had just made with their mothers.
Let me tell you here, however, that herding lambs is nothing like herding their mothers. Lambs don’t yet understand the rules of herding. I can’t really use a dog, because our lambs are still too young to be trained. While adult sheep generally learn to move away from the dog, untrained lambs tend to crowd around him, making him nervous and defeating the purpose of using him to move the sheep. Lambs tend to dart here and there, trying to get away from any human herder. If you get too close, they flee (sometimes darting between your legs!); and if you stand too far back, they begin to play, darting in random directions. In short: herding lambs takes a lot of patience and perseverance! So I took a deep breath, put the dogs in a down-stay, and began to walk towards the little huddle of lambs.
I won’t take you through all the twists and turns and false starts except to say that I eventually did get the group of lambs down to the gate, sort of. I got all but two to move away from me and towards the gate. The whole group got to the fence that separated them from their mothers, and eventually one of them realized that the red gate was open and dashed through to his dam. The others saw him and, in seconds, they were all through the gate, happily reunited with the flock.
You may recall that I said all but two. Just as we left the barn, the two had split off from the group. Rather than try to go back for them, I decided to maintain my momentum with the rest of the group and continue to the gate. The problem was that I now had two lambs to herd, which is even more frustrating than a small group. Two lambs do not make a flock — and they know it! Coming from a large flock like ours, two lambs feel very exposed in such a small group, so they are even more likely to dart around, trying to hide or evade. I went back up to the barn to see what I could do with these last two babies.
I found Obsidian and Oyster at the door to the barn, desperately calling for their mothers. Once again I moved behind them, trying to get them to move away from the barn. Coda, my right-hand dog, came up behind me and tried to keep them from circling around, using his quick movements behind me. I again made the painfully slow walk towards that four-foot gate. Oyster, knowing that her mother would eventually come to look for her in the barn, kept wanting to go back — but I kept pushing forward. Her instinct to stay with the “flock,” as tiny as it was with only two members, kept her with Obsidian. When we finally rounded the last corner and they saw that they had open access through the gate to the entire flock, including their mothers, they literally jumped for joy, gamboling through the last leg of the journey! I’m not sure who was happier: the two lambs, now reunited with their family and friends, or Coda and me, finally free to continue our day!