Unforgotten trauma

This is a big week, since we’ll be putting our breeding groups together on Saturday. In anticipation of the work involved, this entire week has been all about getting the sheep and equipment ready. I’ve checked out all of the marking harnesses and crayons, moved the rams into their winter lodgings, cleaned out all of the water tanks, refilled all of the salt blocks, and last night checked all of the ewe’s coats for damage and trimmed all of the long wool around their back ends. The whole process of putting together our groups moves much more quickly if these many small tasks are done in advance, leaving us to simply weigh the ewes and move them into their breeding group with the chosen ram.

Since the ewes had eaten all of the grass in the Fire Circle Pasture by early this past week, I had been feeding them hay in the field. Yesterday morning I decided to move them into the barn where we will divide up the groups on Saturday. Having them there early allowed me to feed the hay from where it is stored rather than having to load a half-dozen bales into my truck and then drive them to the field to break the bales.

Since it has been getting a bit hotter every day this week, I decided to move them in the morning just after I finished the rest of my chores. Moving the sheep into the barn is generally a fairly easy endeavor with my canine assistant Coda. I prepare the area with lights on, a couple of fresh water-filled tanks and multiple bales of hay in feeders. To make it even better, I sprinkle each bale with corn and alfalfa pellets to keep them inside. My sheep cannot walk away from a tasty game of ‘find the good stuff in the hay bales’! When Coda and I left for the Fire Circle Pasture, the barn was ready and I anticipated no problems getting the sheep in. My ewes move easily when they have a bright shaded area with food and water at the end of the journey.

When I got to the gate at the bottom of their field, I sent Coda up behind the flock. The girls, knowing exactly what was happening, came down to the gate where I waited. When the last stragglers got to the gate, I opened it up and called the ewes through, beginning the walk towards the barn. Some of the ewes made quick stops along the way to grab a mouthful of lush green grass; no surprise, since they had been on dry grass hay bales for nearly the entire week. All of the flock kept moving, with Coda bringing up the rear. Before long, we passed the last gate and were headed for the open garage door at the back of the Sheep Barn.

As the flock made its way, I ran ahead to call them in and greet the early arrivals. The adults knew where they were headed and made a beeline for the barn, already eager to see what was in the feeders. The ewe lambs were scattered throughout the group, and the last ewes had just rounded the corner into the field as the first ewes entered the barn. With the thermometer climbing, it was no surprise that the ewes had spread out so much. Although some girls were very eager to arrive at their destination, others plodded along only as quickly as necessary to avoid the dog at the back of the line.

As the first ewes drew close, I noticed the first hint of a problem. The nearby lambs looked up to see where they were headed, and I suddenly saw a look of panic in their eyes. They stopped abruptly and then escaped to either side of the line of moving sheep. As quickly as we lost those first lambs, the young ones just behind took in the scene before them and they, too, panicked and ran off. Within seconds, the orderly movement of the flock was destroyed as all the lambs became fearful and ran, paying little to no attention to where they were going as long as it was away from the barn. And then I understood.

Regular readers of this blog will remember that I spent a weekend at the Iowa Sheep and Wool Festival this past June, leaving my flock in the care of a farm helper. But the helper didn’t come for the entire weekend, and by the time I returned, the lambs had gone without food and water for too long. In desperation, they ate the bedding and manure off the ground in the barn. They were all terribly sick, and I was worried we would lose at least a few. They all pulled through over a couple of weeks, and shortly after their recovery, we sent them out to graze on pasture. As I stood watching the current scene of mayhem unfold, I realized that my lambs had been so traumatized by that weekend that they were now terrified to enter the scene of their suffering. What a mess!

There was only one thing I could do: catch them one at a time out in the field and carry them into the barn. Because they fled in panic without looking or thinking, there was no rhyme or reason to their movement. This made them incredibly difficult to catch. I knew they were afraid, but the only way to overcome their fears was to face them and to see that those fears were now unfounded. There was a lot of good stuff in that barn — I even broke five pumpkins for them to nibble on once they were in. I knew that they would eventually come to love returning to the barn the way the rest of the flock does, but that it wouldn’t happen until their bad experiences had been overwritten by good ones.

It took a lot of running and carrying, but eventually Coda and I got the last lamb in. Each lamb entered, eyes huge with fear; many were struggling in my arms, essentially begging me not to put them there. But I knew there was no other way. The ewes will relax in the shaded comfort of the Sheep Barn until tomorrow morning, when we will place them in their breeding groups and lead them to their new grazing fields. And hopefully these days inside the barn will begin erasing the lambs’ terrible memory of that June weekend. If it doesn’t, I don’t know what will.

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  • Jane M says:

    They aren’t the only ones who were traumatized… That must have been terribly hard for you as well.

    • Dee says:

      I will admit that seeing their terror was enough to bring me to tears – that is one experience that I don’t think any of us will soon forget. It will take some time….

  • Elaine Chicago says:

    Poor Babes, and poor you. To be still so afraid after a year lets you know how really traumatized they were. Has the stress of this caused any breaks in their fleeces or other problems still lingering?

    • Dee says:

      It certainly looks as if there will be a tenderness in many of this year’s hogget fleeces (the first shearing from sheep about a year old – which we will shear from our youngest at the end of January), but we won’t know for sure until they are sheared.

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