What’s Wrong with this Picture?

Consider three scenarios. In the first: a small flock of sheep is following the shepherd down a trail. The sheep are fairly closely bunched, ewes in front with lambs trailing. The group appears orderly. The sheep seem to be meekly following the shepherd somewhere. In the second scenario: a small flock of sheep is moving quickly (perhaps running) up a trail. The ewes are in front and the lambs are trailing behind. The shepherd follows them, but appears more to be trying to keep up than to be driving the sheep. Scenario three: a small flock of sheep is moving down a trail, all moving more or less in the same direction. Ewes are in front, but sometimes a lamb will lead. Sometimes, one or more sheep will wander from the main group and nibble a strand of grass, but eventually turns back with the main group. A shepherd follows a ways back from the group, sometimes appearing to stray behind the stragglers. He might be driving the sheep somewhere, but it is hard to tell.

We first obtained sheep on the advice of a friend who claimed sheep help keep broom suppressed and this was something we really needed. Along with the initial suppressed broom, we still have more broom that needs to be suppressed. I guess that’s what’s called job security for sheep. Being grazers, sheep particularly love grass. But they also eat a lot of weeds like buttercups; that’s more job security for sheep.

Sheep have had a long association with people, the dog being the only animal that has been domesticated longer. As well as wool, sheep can also provide milk. Many people like to eat sheep, which is ironic because protection from carnivores is probably the main (only?) benefit people supply to the sheep. It is sort of a case of the fox guarding the henhouse.

Owning sheep was a novelty to us and our learning curve was very steep at first. As with any animal, providing food and shelter for them is essential. But how do you get the sheep to follow instructions? You see, sheep have a mind of their own. They are very independent. The picture of sheep grazing as a group across an alpine meadow followed by a shepherd with a crook in his hand is not necessarily normal. More likely, once the sheep are released in the morning they rush off in different directions, several individuals pausing to graze, others rush to where the grass is greener. Commonly, dogs are used to rush around and redirect the flock. The shepherd stands back and directs them both.

However, we didn’t have a dog trained to herd sheep. Trained to bark a little – yes. Herding – no. We found out we aren’t very that good at herding sheep either, because sheep just don’t like to be pushed. They can be pushed, but at their own pace. They can also be pushed only if they want to go in the direction you are trying to push them.

Have a closer look at scenario one. The novice shepherd is carrying a bucket with grain in it. The sheep don’t know where they are going, but they are enticed by food, and grain is more enticing than grass. Scenario two: the sheep are heading back to the barn after a day in the field. They know there is some hay there and perhaps some grain in a bucket. The sheep run faster and faster as they get closer to the barn and at the same time the are competing with each other. The shepherd follows, going slower and slower, or at least it feels that way. In scenario three, the shepherd has finally learned how to drive sheep. The sheep are roughly headed toward the pasture, and don’t stray too much, especially if they aren’t pushed.

Sheep can be choosy. Sheep can be curious. Sheep will compete for food. Sometimes, they will follow each other without knowing where the lead sheep is going or even why the lead sheep is heading off. Some people have insulted sheep by accusing other people of being followers “just like sheep”. Well, it could be suggested that sheep are acting “just like people”!


Posted in A View from the Outside, May 2011

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