When they don’t get up

I am out among the sheep every day, doling out their feed and checking on the flock. This welfare check looks for health issues that aren’t readily apparent. As prey animals, sheep have a very strong instinct to hide their pain or illness, knowing that any displayed weakness could bring them to the attention of a predator. But illness and pain can literally be life-or-death situations, so I use every visit to the flock as an opportunity to see each of them, searching specifically for anything that looks amiss.

Normally when I enter the feeding area, about half the flock is already up and looking forward to the coming fresh bales. Many of the older girls, however, remain in their resting places, knowing it will take me a while to clean out the hay feeders and roam through the sheep that are already up and moving. They await the sound of the dropping bales before they disturb their comfort and come forward.

This usually works well for me, since I can look over the younger flock members before the older girls arrive. Although I usually include shivering in my list of observable symptoms (others include limping, grinding teeth, coughing, and stiffness), this time of year is a bit different. Because our ewes were sheared so recently, our youngest flock members are still figuring out how to survive in a world that has suddenly become cold. The lambs that are turning into yearlings have no memory of cold winters, since they were so very young last year when winter winds howled around our barns. They only remember the Iowa spring and summer warmth and then, warmed by their thick wool coat, the cooler temperatures of autumn and early winter. They haven’t actually felt the cold until now!

As a result, these girls are trying to figure out how to keep comfortable. Over the next weeks, they will come to realize that if they eat more, they’ll be warmer. (The fermentation in their rumen, or first stomach, creates heat as a by-product.) If they find a spot under a heat lamp, they are warmer. If they lie down in the back of the barn or in the lean-to away from the door, they will be warmer. And if they find a place out of the wind, that is warmer yet. All of these facts are learned through their personal experience — through trial and error — and it takes some time for them to experiment and figure it all out. In the meantime, it’s not unusual to see them shiver occasionally as they try a spot that isn’t particularly warm. If I see one shivering, I make a mental note and check her the next day — usually she has found a more comfortable place to rest by then!

Once I’ve checked over the young gals, I begin dropping hay. The older gals arrive, and I look them over to make sure all are well — and they usually are. Yet every once in a while, I’ll notice that one or more of the ewes did not get up. They are either too comfortable or too uncomfortable to rise, and it is my responsibility to assess whether they’re simply too warm and cozy to get up to eat or they’re feeling so bad that getting up is not worth the effort.

After I loaded the bales this morning, I noticed that Hannah was not with the other ewes around the feeder. Instead she was settled into a nice, deeply bedded resting spot deep within the open Storage Barn. I wondered whether I should make her get up even though her spot is likely one of the warmest and most comfortable available to the flock. I knew that getting her up would likely mean that she would lose her spot, but the risk of not getting her up — of leaving her there with perhaps a broken leg, a high fever, or other problem — was too high. I slowly approached Hannah to see what was keeping her in her place.

As I came close to her resting spot, Hannah knew my intent. She had seen me many times before coming towards resting ewes who hadn’t gotten up for their morning ration, so she knew I wouldn’t stop until I saw her move. She popped up and made her way to the bale, looking back at me as if to say, “See? I’m fine — just loving my warm, dry spot out of today’s wind!”

Yes, Hannah, I suspected as much — but I have to make sure. After all, now that you no longer have your lovely wool coat, I need to be sure that you don’t get sick or chilled. I have to know that your next 24 hours will go as well as the last, and I can’t do that unless you get up. Sorry you had to give up your cozy spot, but when you are ready to come back and lie down again, I’m sure that you’re big enough and high enough in the flock structure to claim it for yourself once more.

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