Working alone and creative shepherding

For most of my work with our sheep, I’m working alone to keep everyone safe, healthy, and happy. It sounds quite lovely when I say it that way, but it can also be frustrating in some ways. How does one give injections to a sick-but-still-running sheep or load a big ram into the box of the pickup truck? How about trimming hooves or taking birth photos? There are many things that seem like two-person jobs on first glance, but believe it or not, I’ve done pretty much all of them by myself at one point or another.

Now, let me be clear: if I can get the help, it’s always much easier to accomplish these types of tasks with another set of hands. In fact when looking at a job like trimming the hooves of our ewe flock, the more people we have, the faster the job goes! Yet pretty much anything can be done alone if you give it some creative thought. My mother always taught me that “if there is a will, there is a way!” and I’ve found that to be true when it comes to most sheep chores.

The other morning I got a phone call from a young shepherdess who needed help holding a lamb for an injection. She was home alone and needed to give her sick lamb an intramuscular (IM) medication. Unfortunately, I was awaiting the vet at my place for a health inspection for transport, so I couldn’t help — but I gave her instructions on how to go about it solo. For an IM injection, I usually back the sheep up against a wall or panel so that they can’t back up any further, then straddle the sheep (both of us facing the same direction) and hold them with my legs — at the waist for lambs or just behind the shoulders for a bigger sheep. I then hold them under the chin with my left hand so they cannot go forward or move their head from side to side. Now the injection can be given into the muscle of the neck with the right hand (reverse right and left here for lefties!), but you must inject quickly, since the sheep isn’t going to be happy once they realize what you are doing — you may end up taking a bit of a ride if you’re straddling a large sheep!

Since Rick travels a lot for his work, my early years as a shepherd were filled with trying to figure out how to do things myself. I was often home alone when I felt I needed two people. I found that I could trim hooves on my own if I flipped the big sheep down and then lay on them, holding most of my body weight on my elbows and knees. If my head faced the head of the sheep, I could work on the front hooves, and by spinning around to face the dock, I could manage the rear hooves. The only thing I needed to remember was to always have the neck of the sheep held firmly to the ground (with one arm or leg) and one of the bottom legs (those laying on the floor) raised off of the ground (using another arm or leg of mine). Once I had that covered, the sheep would basically lie there and wait for me to finish my work!

Loading a big ram into the pickup was a bit more challenging — until I found a ramp at a used-equipment auction. The ramp is made for specifically this purpose and comes in three parts: the bottom that hooks onto the tailgate (or onto the box with tailgate removed) and two side panels that slide into place to keep the sheep going in one direction, either up or down. I’ll admit that this can still become a bit of a wrestling match if the sheep is big and doesn’t want to go up. I usually use a bucket of grain to entice them to the top of the ramp, stationing myself behind them, pushing them up with my knees, and holding onto the sides to make sure we keep moving forward. Once they have reached the tailgate, I move the bucket into the crate in the truckbed, and they generally go right in to get the grain! It might take some time, but I’ve never had a situation where I didn’t get a sheep loaded. (Unloading is usually easier, since they all want to leave the truck at a certain point!)

Shepherding has been accomplished throughout the centuries by single shepherds out in the fields among their flocks. There were no cell phones to “phone a friend,” nor were there fast vehicles to bring other people out to help. It was much as it still is today: a shepherdess and her flock, establishing trusting relationships and using all the creativity she can muster to get things done when the need arises. It’s just how it is!


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