North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
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Understanding Sheep

Of all the barnyard critters, sheep seem to be the most easily misunderstood.  Yes, folks will say that goats are liable to eat tin cans (though Linden hasn’t managed this yet…but we haven’t given him a chance either) or that chickens will run around with their heads cut off (we always butcher using confinement cones, which eliminates the running potential), but sheep seem to always get the short end of the appreciation stick.  No, they’re not stupid—they’re just really good at being sheep.

“Silly sheep,” I remember Barbara, one of the hosts during my brief tour of England and Wales, saying to herself as she shook her head at an escaped yearling running along in front of our bus.  It had somehow slipped the fence and was putting every ounce of effort to get back to his friends.  “That’s what the English say about them,” she explained.  “Silly sheep.  Sometimes they climb up so high on the slate shale that they get scared and won’t come down, so they have to be carried off the hill.”

Now, it doesn’t help that sheep (as foragers of grasses and a little grain) find themselves in the lower strata of the hierarchy of predator and prey—where humans and wolves would be at the top.  For sheep, their diet contains very little variation (they like it that way), even though eating and re-chewing what they have already eaten (a slimy substance that is part of the rumination process called “cud”) takes up most of their day.

Being at the bottom of the predator/prey heap means that there are quite a number of other creatures in this world that would be happy to eat sheep.  Even eagles are known to attack lambs, let alone the four-legged hunters.  With so many hungry stalkers everywhere, sheep have learned that the best defense is to flee.  This could mean fleeing from sudden loud noises, the approach of anything unfamiliar, or for other reasons that may escape untrained human perception.  For a sheep, it is better to run and ask questions later.  Last one out is usually the first one caught.  When all else fails, bunch into a tight group and hope you are the one in the middle!

Getting their share of food and staying away from things that are frightening are the two biggest motivators for sheep.  If you find yourself having trouble moving sheep from one area to another, it’s not because the sheep are dumb—it’s because you’re not using the right motivators!  Dash a bit of grain into the trough and in they’ll come.  Use the sheep dog to help herd them in the right direction and they’ll go.

But sometimes there is a conflict of motivators.  When we first started to train our sheep to enter our new dairy parlor to be milked, the ewes were anything but cooperative.  The stanchions are up on a metal grate platform.  On top of the platform was their daily ration of grain (good motivator) but to get there involved climbing onto an apparatus where the sheep could see the ground below (bad motivator—sheep like to be firmly on the ground).  To overcome the bad motivator, we zip-tied cardboard to the bottom and sides of the platform so that the sheep couldn’t see through.  Once they were convinced that the structure was solid and safe after a week or so, we slowly removed the cardboard a piece at a time.  When we started milking this summer, the older ewes taught the younger ladies that all was safe—based on their authoritative experience.  Besides, dinner was in those buckets!

Trying to escape the paddock because the grass is greener on the other side of the fence?  Food motivator!  And, well, can you say that you’ve never desired something you couldn’t have?  To sheep, green grass is better than any chocolate cake with raspberries and ganoche frosting.  It’s simply divine.

The other place where sheep are criticized for being stupid is connected with their fight-or-flight instinct.  When humans take a tumble, our instinct is to put out our hands to break the fall and save our vital organs from a hard impact.  In a way, this makes sense (outer extremities are not as vital as one’s heart or liver) but on the other hand it seems terribly silly given that a shoulder can take a greater hit than a wrist.  Silly humans, why do we stick out our hands and break our wrists when we fall?  We should know better!

For sheep, that moment of panic manifests in bolting forward.  This could be triggered because they pushed their necks under the electric fence for that extra-sweet clump of grass then—pop—as the jolt comes through they charge forward and suddenly find themselves on the other side of the fence.  Oops, that wasn’t supposed to happen. 

Now the rest of the flock is easing away from the fence because the first sheep made a sudden movement and startled them.  Now she is no longer with her group!  She is alone!  She is vulnerable when she is alone!  Something might come out of the woods and eat her!  Can you blame her for being a bit panicked and pacing the fence to find a way back in?  If she touches the fence again, it will bite her.  If she stays where she is, a predator might attack her.  It’s an anxiety-provoking position for anyone.

Sheep do, however, have the propensity for mishaps.  If there is something to get oneself tangled in, trip oneself on, or wedge oneself into, the sheep will find it.  Over the years, we’ve learned to stop and think, “If I were a sheep, could I get stuck or hurt on that?”  With stories of farmers who left round bales of hay in the paddock for their sheep only to find that as they ate the middle the remaining ring of hay collapsed on their wooly friends along with other misadventures, it’s always good to think two steps ahead of the sheep.  With long, knobby legs, it’s easy to get tangled.  Without much depth perception in front (unlike predatory vision, like ours), it’s sometimes hard to judge the true size of any space.

This is true of a time when we were moving a ewe and her lamb from a birthing jug in the south wing of the barn to the center barn with the other ewe and lamb pairs.  Kara was holding the lamb (which the mother usually follows complacently), while I held the pen open.  The ewe wanted to follow her baby, but at the same time she did not want to leave the safety of her jug.  We had her almost to the door when she changed her mind and darted back towards the pen—choosing the most direct route.  This was right between my legs.  I suddenly found myself sprawled over the back of a galloping sheep, legs in the air, arms grasping for any tuft of wool.

“Don’t do that!” Mom yelled as I was carried off and slammed into the sides of the pen.  “I wasn’t trying to,” I moaned as the sheep finally just lay down with me on top.  “The silly sheep must have thought I was taller!”

So next time someone says that sheep are stupid, you can reply that no, they are just really good at being sheep.  Speaking of which, Sweet Pea the miniature sheep and Linden the dwarf goat are down at the Café on pleasant days to greet you!  Maybe they’ll share a few more secrets with you about understanding sheep, if you listen carefully.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453

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