The road well traveled

Sheep are creatures of habit who stick to their routines even if, from the human vantage point, those routines don’t make much sense. I have ewes in my flock who were fed from a particular color bucket years ago, when they needed grain supplementation during gestation, and they still get excited when they see me walking with the same color bucket . They are sure that it’s theirs, despite the intervening years.

Most of the habits and routines are, from my vantage point as the shepherdess, neutral — neither good nor bad, they just are. Yet there are others that make me wonder: how did this particular behavior take root and come down through the ages? These are the routines that seem counterproductive or seem to work against the health of the flock. Routines that, after so many millennia, should have been lost to history like many of the other not-so-great traits of ancient sheep — such as shedding their fleeces, which forced the shepherd to gather wool from branches and off the ground.

I’ve decided that their movement habits fall into this counterproductive category. When sheep move, they form a long, strung-out line with a lead sheep deciding the path and the rest of the flock following (like in the picture for last week’s Thanksgiving blog). The lead sheep will generally follow a very particular path — even if we can’t see it — taking the flock over the same ground day after day. Grass doesn’t survive heavy foot traffic, so eventually the grass dies in the flock’s path and we’re left with a muddy trail, over which the flock tramps again and again. Mud isn’t very good for hoof health since it holds all kinds of nasty bacteria against the foot, much like a poultice — a particularly unhealthy poultice. It’s much healthier for the sheep to walk on grass, but as a shepherd, I know how hard it is to keep grass growing underfoot!

Notice the beaten down path of the sheep coming from the Rock Pasture into the Fire Circle Pasture (where I am standing to take the photo). It isn’t even the shortest path between the two points!

The only way to keep the grass healthy in the pathway areas is to limit the amount of time the sheep have access to any one path. I took the photo on the left the other day. You can see that the sheep have been taking a particular path from the barn to their grazing in the Fire Circle Pasture. If I stand at the right spot, I could get an equally good picture of the beaten-down path from the West Pasture to the Rock Pasture. We have this type of pathway coming and going to all sorts of places on our farm. Because sheep don’t like mud, they’ll skirt the muddy spots like the one at the gate — but then they come back together to create another muddy pathway! Our sheep are nothing if not predictable in their walking!

I know that these areas need rest to bounce back and produce grass during the next growing season. The grass is now dormant, and the sheep have essentially eaten down whatever grazing our pastures have to offer, so I’ve stopped giving them access to the fields. The sheep are stuck in the paddocks for the winter, where their resting and movement won’t kill any more grass. We won’t let them out onto the fields again until the grass is has grown in thick and healthy, even on the walkways. If we allowed them free access, these trodden paths would soon be permanent, forcing our sheep to walk in mud for most of the year.

If the sheep didn’t insist on walking the exact same ground as the sheep ahead of them, or if they changed up their pathway from one day to the next, this would not be a big issue. But as I’ve said, sheep are creatures of habit, and the path to any particular place on our farm is fairly well established at this point. Animals don’t typically continue a behavior that doesn’t pay off in some way, but I can’t figure out the pay-off in this case. Looking at the paths, they aren’t the shortest distance between the two points; some meander all over the place. They aren’t over the most level ground, nor do they offer any other particular asset. They’re just the sheep’s favorite trails. And I guess, for them, that counts for a lot.

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