We have four sheep. They are pets and they all have names. They don’t actually know they are pets, nor do they know their names, but they are safe from being eaten, even though we do eat other sheep. At some level they seem to know that.
I grew up on a dairy/sheep farm and I never took much notice of the sheep. They were just woolly blobs that roamed the hills. My father spend a lot of time in early spring ‘going around the sheep’ which meant checking if they were in difficultly giving birth. In my early childhood one or two abandoned lambs were brought home for us kids to bottle feed. My sister raised a black lamb which was very tame, for her anyway, even when it was grown up.
Our current sheep all arrived as adults at various ages, though one of them was barely grown. With just four we get to observe them closely and they have distinct personalities. They are actually quite clever or, at least, they are good at what they do ie being sheep.
For example at this time of year they really, really like to spend time in the orchard. There is fruit on the trees which they mostly can’t reach (this is the reason we don’t keep llamas) but they can watch for when it falls. We go up there once a day or so and they mill about knowing we will toss them some crab apples. Crab apples seem to be the best thing in the whole world, they lick their lips as they run up to us. At other times of the year they are easy to move to the other paddock, but when the crab apples are there they are quite reluctant.
Except today. Today we’re expecting a cyclone and the other paddock has more shelter. This morning there wasn’t any wind to speak of but we had the weather forecast. So we went out to argue with the sheep who would not want to leave the crab apples. But they did. They’d felt the weather, well we could feel the drop in air pressure too, and they wanted to move.
When they want to move it is just a matter of opening the two gates and they run from one to the other. They know the drill, they’re good at this.
But, like I said, they are all different. One time I was explaining to visitors who was who, I can recognise them from any angle and I noticed some skepticism. They were thinking ‘they’re just sheep, they’re all the same.’ But really they aren’t.
The oldest (we think) is Limpy. He’s a wether, a castrated male. and he still knows he’s the boy, he’s in charge. He’s quite brave in his way. There’s a little yappy dog next door who sometimes runs across our paddock. It’s harmless, but it is a dog, therefore a wolf. The girls all flock up, Limpy places himself between them and the wolf, and stands his ground. It’s his job. He’s not at all scared of me either. One time I was in the forest near the fence to their paddock and I kind of burst out of the trees. Limpy was right by the fence on the other side and I gave him a start. He gave me a pained look as if to say ‘thought it was something dangerous but it was just you.’ One time I was trying to block his way (we’d got into some rare confusion when shifting them to the other paddock) and he just put his head down and pushed past me. He can be a bit of a bully with the others. He will push them away from any fruit we throw them if he can, but he usually doesn’t bother because there’s plenty.
Next is NDF (for No Distinguishing Features). Well we couldn’t see anything different about her back when we were naming them. In fact she’s a romney where the others are perendales, it means she’s a bit bigger (she gets any low hanging fruit) and broader in the face. She is inclined to stand and stare at us with an astonished look on her face which makes us think she’s not too bright. She is also the most nervous of the four. She does love crab apples though and we see her screwing up her courage to come up close to where we’re throwing them. If it’s not crab apples we have to throw whatever it is a little further for her.
The smartest of the four is Curious. She’s the one who gets ideas. Sheep tend to follow each other but it takes one of them to think ‘let’s go over here’ and the others to follow. That’s usually Curious. She likes to eat the grass right at the fence line possibly because no one has peed on it ever. Also she’s likely to be the one calling out to us when she sees us in the garden. She only does that in crab apple season, except one or twice when we’ve had unexpected visitors, so she’s a sort of watch-sheep too. Not a very good one though. She’s fairly tame but she won’t take apples from our hands, only from the ground. Given that she sees the others doing it I have to conclude that she doesn’t want to.
She is also inclined to sleep very soundly. One time we were moving them we thought she was dead. She was lying there in a heap and the others all ran through the gate when we opened it. We called her, clapped our hands and got no reaction. So we finished moving the others and went back, we expected, to bury her. As I approached her she suddenly jumped up, looked alarmed she was by herself and ran off after the others. I wonder if being smarter means her brain is wired a bit differently and it changes the way she sleeps. But I don’t know.
The youngest, though several years old now, is Lambkin. She was definitely a pet when she was tiny, probably bottle fed by some kids, and she’s the tamest. During crab apple season she is rubbing around our legs almost like a cat, nibbling our trousers and generally looking very excited. She never wants to be patted but she’s friendly enough. And she really enjoys life. She tends to toss her head when she runs and sometimes she does what we call her happy dance. I still haven’t caught this on video yet but imagine a kind of bounding gait where all four feet leave the ground as she prances about. It is hilarious and it is obvious she is doing it for sheer joy. Lately she’s got Curious doing it too.
The happy dance turns up after a good feed of crab apples or when she’s moved to fresh pasture. But it isn’t inevitable, she does it about four times a year, the rest of the time she just seems normally cheerful.
We get to observe them every day because we have a small property and very few sheep. Most farmers I know think of their sheep as stupid because they get in a panic whenever the farmer does anything with them. But those farmers bring dogs to help (they have to with that many sheep) and the sheep don’t know them anyway. The thing is we do eat sheep, and they know it. We’d be in a panic if we were in a room with a tiger, even one that didn’t seem hungry right now. Ours seem to know they’re safe from us. Fairly safe anyway. They’ll run if I chase them (once a year I need to catch each one to administer tick medicine and they run away then). But no way do they panic when they see us.
But when we have visitors they don’t behave the same way. They don’t know the visitors, they tend to flock up and look nervous. They’re good at being sheep.