When one is a shepherd, it isn’t easy to factor sick days or vacation days into one’s schedule. This doesn’t mean that you can’t take them — but it isn’t as simple as with other types of work. My sheep and llamas are wonderful to work with, but they don’t send a representative to sit down with me once each year to negotiate my days off. They don’t specify which days I can take as vacation or when I get sick, and which days one of them will need me around to administer medication or pull them out of a hole that they can’t manage themselves. No, taking time off can be tricky if you care about your flock.
Once every few years, my side of the family takes a family reunion vacation for a week or so in the summer. Rick and I join our son and daughter-in-law, both of my brothers and their families, and my mother at a mutually agreed upon vacation spot, and we spend a week in the sun and have fun at our chosen location. Last week we joined them on a cruise through the eastern Caribbean — and we had a great time!
Trying to clear my schedule for a week means a lot of advance planning, however. We spend the week before we leave trying to anticipate what might come up in our absence. We change coats on all of the sheep who may come to need bigger sizes — but we must be careful which coats we change, since if it rains and the coats are a smidge too big, the sheep will step out of the leg straps, which could cause issues while we are gone. We deworm any sheep who might look a bit off due to parasites, and we generally look over the entire flock to anticipate what might come up in our absence and then we address all of those issues. We put all of the sheep into new pastures just before we leave, hopefully providing enough feed for them in our absence.
Although that reduces problems that need to be dealt with while we are away, we still need a farm sitter for any getaways longer than a day or two. The sheep cannot go for an entire 10 days (with travel days included) without someone looking them over. One of the lambs could become cast (lying down in a divot or with legs uphill so that they can’t get up, leading to death) or get caught on thorny branches, one of the ewes could end up with pneumonia, or any one of the flock could end up with fly strike or an injury that requires treatment. There is so much that can go wrong in our absence that someone needs to check in at least once a day to look over the flock, and the farm in general. Our farm sitters sometimes live at their home but come visit our place once or twice each day, or they simply stay here in one of our spare rooms. That way, not only is the flock safer, but I can rest easier knowing that someone is watching over them.
This year’s vacation was wonderful, but upon my return, I was hit with the flu. Just a day or two before the end of our vacation, I found myself getting sick, and by the time I was back home on Sunday afternoon, I was really dragging with a fever, cough, congestion and body aches. I knew at that point that it would likely get worse before it got better, so upon our arrival at home, we went directly out to move sheep to new pastures and look over the flock. Thankfully, all was well once they were moved, and the chicks in the coop looked fine (and MUCH bigger!), so we could focus on unpacking, laundry, and all of those things that accompany a return from a trip. Honestly, all I wanted to do was crawl into bed and pull up the covers!
As expected, Monday was worse: my fever was higher, the congestion was moving into a sinus infection, and I generally felt miserable. Since Rick was away on business, there was no one to check on the sheep but me, so out I went in midafternoon to take a quick look. Unfortunately, Ora (one of the ewe lambs) needed her coat changed since she had torn the leg strap, trapping both back legs in one strap. Nevaeh needed deworming and a bit of a trim around her back end to avoid fly strike. Neither could wait, so I spent about 90 minutes trying to catch them and then do what needed to be done. Of course, they both knew they were the target of my attention and neither wanted to be caught — and in my weakened state, I was not at the top of my game. I eventually got both taken care of and then crawled back into bed.
I am finally feeling a bit better today, and Rick is back to help me check on the sheep if I don’t feel up to it. Yet I think this whole experience points out just how hard it can be to take a vacation or find a series of sick days in which to recover if you have a flock of sheep. This is the time of year when there is the least work to do: no hay to feed, no water tanks to keep free of ice, no baby lambs to keep from freezing. Still, the flock depends on its shepherd to ensure its health and well-being, and that isn’t a job that can be set aside when it’s inconvenient. Thankfully, as I now slowly regain my health, I am beginning to once again look forward to visits to my flock, greeting my friends with an ear rub or a bit of graham cracker, or simply standing on the ridge and looking them over as they graze. It’s good to be home!