The Secret of Shepherding is Knowing Where to Stand

IM001203If most people have ever taken a thought about sheep today, they think of those misinformed news stories implicating sheep in mad cow disease. Or they think of some animal-rights propaganda about ‘factory farms’. But the thing about American sheep is that they are overwhelmingly raised in very small flocks. And with many of those flocks, they do things the old fashioned way— like old-fashioned shepherding.

Most sheep flocks in the Upper Midwest are kept in fenced pastures, and I do have fenced pastures. With falling-down fences that I should actually be repairing right this minute. But at this time of year my flock has eaten down all the tasty stuff and they are looking for something better. And sometimes escaping the fences to get it.

Though I don’t really blame the sheep for their most recent mass breakout from Azkaban. It’s Paprika the goat’s fault. That particular day she decided what she really wanted to do was:

  1. Go into labor.
  2. Jump the fence and lead the sheep herd into doing likewise.
  3. Break into the barn through the poultry entrance.
  4. Give birth to twins.

The way to get around the pasture problem is to take the sheep beyond the fences and shepherd the old-fashioned way, as Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta were doing when they had those visions in Fatima, Portugal. Or like in the book Heidi, where Goat-Peter took the town’s goats up to graze on the mountain.

Sheep that are grazed this way regularly are used to that and tend to obey their shepherd. Mostly. But my sheep are fenced sheep and figure where there are no fences they can go where they please. So I stand around with my Intimidating Stick and yell YEE-HAW! a lot and still there is a 50% percent chance that rather than chewing down the grass around the barn they will run down my driveway, cross the street and chew on the neighbor’s alfalfa field. Which is unhealthy— too much alfalfa can give ruminants (animals like sheep, goats & cows) a disease called bloat which can be fatal.

I’ve learned that the secret of successful shepherding is to know where to stand. Too close, and you intimidate the shy sheep into moving away. Usually the whole flock goes with them. Too far, on the other hand, and they figure they are on their own and next thing I know I’m running down my road trying to catch up with the damn things and get them turned around and back on my own property.

It helps to have sheep that are familiar with you, and that’s where I go wrong. I should be spending a half-hour to an hour every day with the flock while they are grazing in the fenced pasture, so they are used to my presence. I should also daily herd them from the pasture into the barnyard and lock them in for the night.

But I didn’t do much of that this year and so I have a whole lamb crop that barely knows me. So they stay away and don’t do what I want them to do or go where I want them to go. I DID run the whole flock through my sorting shed to pull out the male lambs, but that didn’t exactly endear me to those lambs who had to have ear tags put in. That’s why, if you ever own sheep, you should put the ear tags in when they are less than a day old. That way they won’t remember the experience and hold grudges.

Shepherding the old-fashioned way is tough. But my sheep need to eat, and my budget insists that they eat grass and weeds rather than get started on the hay which should be reserved for winter. So I shepherd. And I curse. And now I have to go to confession. But next year I’m doing to do lambing season RIGHT and when it comes time to shepherd the flock to new places, they will all be calm and well behaved and I’ll never have to say anything stronger than ‘oh, sugar!’ Of course, that’s what I resolved last year at this time of year.

2 thoughts on “The Secret of Shepherding is Knowing Where to Stand

  1. I worked on a sheep farm for a summer a few years back, and while I did very little with the sheep themselves (I ran the gift shop), it was still definitely a small, working farm (I think they had 80 acres), and even the gift shop conformed to meet that lifestyle.

    The woman I worked for (she and her husband owned the farm, though he worked at a bank) was the main shepherd, and she did it the old-fashioned way. She was out there, every day, with her sheep. We were in the middle of really bad drought that summer, too, and the worry of ‘Is there still enough potable water in the pond’ and ‘is there enough grass’ or ‘will we have enough hay this winter’ were always underlying everything.

    But it was an experience I wouldn’t trade for the world! Even if I was stuck in the gift shop most of the time.

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