Wednesday, 6 August 2014

A Pox on Your Sheep Shed

Everyone loves animal stories. This first big book I devoured in one sitting was Aesop's Fables.  I remember my sister, maybe seven years old, walking into our kitchen clutching a paperback copy of Where the Red Fern Grows, in floods of tears after reading the sad ending (I won't spoil it, in case it's on your own To Read list.)

The nightstand next to my bed is a testament to my continued fascination with animals: books about wild mustangs, pet nannies, milking sheep, dog domestication, beekeeping, and horse tack. Today, traffic on the internet would be halved if it wasn't for funny animal videos.

I recently bought a book for its title alone: Today I Baled Some Hay to Feed the Sheep the Coyotes Eat. Now there is an author who can sum up farming in one sentence. Farming and gallows humour go together like, well, sheep and coyotes - an inevitable if unwelcome pairing. The author Bill Stockton wrote with great compassion for his sheep, and his spare, conservative illustrations convey in a few strokes the whole attitude of his animals, and must have come from years of close observation.

Farmers occupy an odd, contradictory space between raising animals for food and finding their behaviours endlessly fascinating, worthy of a lifetime's study. Let's face it, sometimes daily farm chores can be repetitive and not particularly mind-expanding. On a bad day, one amusing behaviour can be worth as much to the soul as the meat, milk and fleece are to the body.

When I'm not watching my own flock, pack or herd, I'm reading about people's observations of their own flocks, packs, and herds. I enjoy reading these books immensely, but for jaw-dropping surprises nothing trumps watching your own animals. The animals don't read these books, and therefore don't always behave as directed.

Turkeys are relatively new stock for us. I've only owned a handful, so not enough for a reasonable behavioural study. I've read a few anecdotal remarks about turkeys, all of which claim that turkeys are stupid. This is not my experience at all -

My bronze turkey hen demonstrates learned patterns around food. Without thinking, I let her out in the morning on my way to prepare the dogs' breakfasts, and she soon learned that if she followed me and stood by, I would give her some of what was going in their bowls that morning. (I learned that she's partial to oatmeal.) The turkey is even fonder of peanuts, and if she sees me take down the empty wild bird feeders, she will flap-run at full speed across the garden and follow on my heels to "help" me refill them from the storage bins.

That turkey perfectly demonstrates the new thinking behind animal domestication: animals that have shorter flight (as in "fight-or-flight") distances and can endure being close to people reap the benefits of our largesse - or at least the benefits our compost heaps and garbage dumps. I do tidbit her more than the chickens because she's "nicer" to me than my chickens. In fact, I know that if I dropped down dead in the garden, those chickens would strip my carcase before sundown which, I suppose, is a fitting end for me considering how many chicken carcases I've stripped in my lifetime.

Sheep are another animal that gets bad press in the brains department. Sheep also demonstrate learning patterns around food distribution. I feed the sheep; Mike never does. The sheep associate my truck with food, and shout like hell when I pull up in the truck at mealtimes. If Mike borrows my truck, they still shout like hell until he gets out. Then Mike says they lose interest and go back to grazing. That's because sheep recognise faces. Actually, they're very good at it.

One study claims sheep recognise at least fifty individual faces. That's more than I can recognise, as I suffer from mild prosopagnosia. I don't forget family members or anything, but if you and I have dinner together tonight, I won't know who you are tomorrow. I've developed adaptive behaviours that help me cope (i.e. hide it) but our recent move and subsequent meeting of new people and clients has been trying. Inexplicably, I recognise animals like dogs easily, and in point of fact I recognise most of my own sheep by their faces. Some people I never learn to recognise. The sheep have me beat in this department.

Sheep remember where they live, too. Have you heard of hefted flocks? It's a method of managing sheep so they are allowed to graze unfenced land, with only a daily visit from the shepherd to push them back if they stray too far. In time the ewes learn their boundaries, and pass on the knowledge to their lambs - where to find the best grazing, shelter from bad weather, the edges of their territory. It's hard work to heft a flock initially but once the flock learns, it takes on the teaching role for all future generations.

My sheep have taught me a behaviour too. When a normally aloof ewe deliberately seeks me out for a pat or physical contact, that ewe is telling me she doesn't feel well. Twenty-three of my breeding ewes are currently suffering from orf - a sort of sheep chickenpox. If you've had chickenpox you can empathise with my poor ladies. I saw one tiny sore on a ewe, and within 24 hours other ewes sought out my company.

My worst case

It's a horribly infectious virus which - joy of joys - is transmissible to humans. There's no cure for it; they simply have to ride it out. I can only alleviate some symptoms and bolster their immune systems, which are thankfully fairly robust in these older ewes. After suiting and gloving up, I administered 46 tiny vitamins, and sprayed sores with anti-bac spray, then I took a Karen Silkwood-style shower in virucide, and used a broom to poke my contaminated clothes into the washing machine.

I'm not sure what the title of that book would be.


Barbara said...

Stay well. Having tended turkeys and sheep, truly appreciate your essay. Maybe a title could be A Pox Upon the Flock. Hope they are all well soon.

Peruby said...

Holy cow! That is exhausting. I love animals and can watch them for hours. My four dogs are rather boring, though.

Sara Rall said...

I don't know what the title would be, but I would love to read the book. I never knew turkeys had such a pleasant trill as yours was making as she followed you around. Neat!

Jennifer Montero said...

Barbara - That would have been a more clever title for this post too!

Jennifer Montero said...

Peruby - I cannot believe that 4 dogs could ever be boring. I'm sure they're just very contented.

Jennifer Montero said...

Sara - The turkeys "talk" like that as the go about their daily turkey business. It is very pleasant, and turkeys can be surprisingly good company.

Seester said...

I know that you shut them in at night for their own protection, but it looks like you've thrown those other turkeys into solitary confinement. I'm picturing little \\|// \\|// marks all over the walls in there, marking the days...

Jennifer Montero said...

As turkeys have multiple toes, would those scratches indicate ten days in the hole, or just two? Turkey jail is like white collar jail, and they're free during the day.

Elizabeth in Philly said...

So the title of "Today I Baled..." was so intriguing I had to get it. It's been hanging around my kitchen table for a little while, and Sunday morning I devoured THE ENTIRE BOOK in one read. In bed, with a cup of tea, before breakfast.

My Irish dairy-and-sheep-farm-raised husband really wanted to sleep in, but I kept reading him nuggets that were particularly juicy to get his perspective.

Have you seen the documentary "Sweetgrass"? It's remarkable, about some of the last remaining Montana sheep ranchers and one of their last summer drives. We've watched it twice, and I'd give it another go.

Good luck this shooting season! I hope the new setup is good to you, Mike, and your menagerie.

Jennifer Montero said...

Elizabeth - That's exactly how the book hooked me, and I couldn't put it down either. What did you think of his drawings?

I haven't heard of Sweetgrass but I will search it out now. Our loaner ram goes in this week so stay tuned for spring lambing. We don't have coyotes here so that's one less burden than the poor author had.

Elizabeth in Philly said...

Those drawings, pure genius. Ovinity distilled.

I'm glad to hear you don't have coyotes to contend with, sheep farming sounds challenging enough without those marauders in the 'hood.

My grandmother's house in southern CA was surrounded by a horse farm up until about five years ago, and even then (despite 3000% population growth since her arrival) we'd hear coyotes mixing it up with rabbits at night. There's a sound that cannot be unheard. Once I even saw a roadrunner in the back yard, to complete the picture.

I hope you enjoy Sweetgrass ... the opening scene stare is priceless!

Colette said...

Loving catching up with your life. How's that book idea coming along. I love how you write. It makes me hungry, wanting to devour every word in your posts. You are so flipping talented. You make even the crappiest of situations sound blissful!! In a rather you then me sort of way.

You have a gift young lady xx