Thursday, 12 April 2012

Fun with Sheep

Heavy persistent showers have driven me indoors and forced me to do battle with my pile of paperwork - bills, tax returns, overseas voting forms, flock plans. In fact, I'm due at the vets in a hour to go over this year's sheep management programme with 'Bloody' Mary.

Mary is a very capable, tough, large animal vet who earned her nickname from us because, every time I bump into her, she's covered in blood from performing emergency cesareans in the field or other such heroic life-saving procedures. I have all the time and respect in the world for a hands-on, can-do woman like Mary.(The boys do too, possibly because of the huge cauterising bull castration pliers she keeps in her van.)

The sheep are doing well. You will not be surprised to hear that I've not yet booked the lambs in for Ice Camp (I used Easter as an excuse last week). So, they're happily putting on a useless layer of fat as the lush grass comes in.

On top of good grass, I'm still hand feeding them a little barley, just to encourage them to come close enough that I can check them over every day. We finished building a small holding pen with a system of gates in and out which, in theory, will make handling them easier.

If I can figure out how to get them all to go in there.

Now, I'm a big fan of operant conditioning. Sheep behaviour is relatively easy to manipulate using association and positive reinforcement, as long as you are specific about your training goal. For example: I'm inherently lazy, I hate walking all the way across a ten acre field to round-up sheep. I wanted my sheep to come to the gate to greet me. I started by rounding them up, and simply feeding them by the gate around the same time each day. Once they were habituated to eating by the gate, I added a stimulus - beeping the Land Rover horn - before I parked and put food in their trough.

In less than a week, that flock was conditioned to come running for food as soon as they heard me beeping the horn as I drove up the road. Only a few of the "brighter" sheep need to respond, and flock mentality draws the rest of them in.

Training works both ways. Ewe 0002 - the Texel cross - is especially receptive to rewards and habituated to me. She's trained me to give her a handful of food as soon as I arrive by standing on the gate, which amuses me, and causes me to reward her -

I know - cute, right?

I'm such a sucker.

My first rule of animal training is "Feed them, and they will come." This nearly always produces a successful result (possibly because I keep Labradors and Cob horses, both notoriously greedy breeds). The wary sheep simply need time to get habituated to the new enclosure and if I show a little patience I'll be rewarded.

While wading through my mound of paperwork, I've just come across the bill from the fencers for putting up the small pen. For the same amount of money, I could have purchased a fully-trained sheep dog, so smart that it could have rounded up my flock then helped me with my taxes.

Live and learn.


Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

We should all of us girls walk around with huge cauterising bull castration pliers, and see how the world would change.

Let's hear it for operant conditioning! Skinner made some mistakes in his career, but good, old Skinnerian conditioning is a mainstay of anyone who keeps animals. The essence of getting them to do what we want is to turn what we want into what they want, and nothing does that better than food. I love the horn-tooting. Saves time.

It's no wonder Ewe 0002 is the charismatic one. She's already famous! You should get a picture of her with Bono.

Jennifer Montero said...

Horn tooting absolutely saves time, precious seconds that I could have spent drinking coffee, or staring into space.

Operant conditioning is less effective on husbands. But I think you and Mary are onto something with motivational castration pliers in the back of the truck.

I've tried to think of a clever Bono-related name for Ewe0002 but the creative part of my brain is a barren wasteland these days. Both the ewe and I are open to suggestions.

Hazel said...

Bono Flox?

Sorry, I'll get my coat...

Poppy Cottage said...

Hello!!!!! Aaaaggggeeeesssss since I've contacted you. Sorry, about the sewing machine, if you want to buy it then that is great just not sure how much.

Have you been to the new wool shop in Bridport? I love my 'sometimes' little job there. Soooooo many ideas in my little head, so much nice wool.

I wonder how many times a day they head for the gate when someone else drives past and beeps?

Think I am on the look out for a rescue cocker. Lily is getting a bit lonely I think.

Hope you see you soon.