Sunday, February 24, 2013

2013 Lambing Notebook - Installment #1

Several years ago, I made a blog entry everyday during our lambing season.  I'm not nearly as ambitious this year, but I thought I would try to make some more regular updates about how lambing is progressing in 2013.  While I hope this is of interest to others, I'm doing it mostly so that I can remember how this season goes!

We turned the rams in with the ewes on October 1, 2012, which means our ewes are, at most, 147 days into their gestation.  Ewes are pregnant for 145-155 days (generally), so we're just getting started.  So far, we've had 5 lambs born to 3 ewes, which is about normal for this stage of the game.

Last night, I couldn't make my evening check on the ewes until almost 9 p.m. - we had a soccer tournament in Woodland that kept us away all afternoon.  Usually when I drive up to the paddock, the guard dogs greet me.  Last night, however, I was only greeted by Buck.  Reno was nowhere to be seen.

As I started walking through the flock, I heard Reno barking at me (or more accurately, at my flashlight) off to the south.  I called to him to let him know it was me, and he eventually found me.  After the obligatory head-scratch, he made it clear that I needed to follow him.  He lead me to a ewe that had just given birth to twins.  Reno, obviously, had been overseeing the proceedings.

Reno's attentiveness to birthing ewes is the culmination of an interesting "growing-up" process for him. When I first got him as a 6-month old pup, he was overly playful.  He thought lambs were fellow puppies who would be great fun to romp with.  During Reno's playful phase, he chewed the ear off of a ewe (who is still in the flock) and otherwise caused me a great deal of stress.  I thought he'd never grow out if it.  Now that he's 4, he's become an extremely reliable guardian for our flock, and we can trust him with lambing ewes.

In the years we've used guardian dogs to protect our flock from predators, I've come to realize that these dogs straddle the boundary between domestic dog and wild canine.  Training a good guard dog, I think, means living as much of his or her canine instincts in tact as possible.  In many ways, our guard dogs fill the "large canine predator" niche in our operation.  While they certainly run off other predators (like coyotes, mountain lions and domestic dogs), they also succeed in their guardianship by displacing these other predators in our ecosystem.

Canine predators help control the rodent and rabbit populations in our natural systems.  While I don't think our guard dogs are fast enough to catch a healthy jackrabbit, I know that they do dig up gophers and ground squirrels when they have a chance to do so.  Canine predators, at least in our part of California, are also scavengers.  Our dogs will devour dead wild animals that they may find in their paddocks.  During this time of year, they also clean up the afterbirth, which otherwise would attract undesirable predators.  And on rare occasions, their predatory behavior seems to conflict with my goals as the caretaker of my flock.  Sometimes we'll have a weak or sick lamb that dies in the paddock before we can intervene.  The guard dogs clean these dead lambs up as well.

Occasionally, a sheep will become attached to one of the guard dogs.  Our only female dog at the moment, Rosie, seems to have a pet ewe lamb.  She's with our replacement ewes (who are just now yearlings).  At every feeding, Rosie is shadowed by a ewe lamb who follows her all over the paddock.

On a different note, I'm becoming quite concerned by the continued dry weather.  The fall rains were ideal this year, but we've had less than 2 inches of rainfall since January 1.  The ground sounded dry under my boots this morning as I built fence and moved the ewes.  The last 4 weeks of pregnancy and the first 6 weeks of motherhood are the most critical for our ewes nutritionally.  We try to time our lambing season with the onset of rapid grass growth in our part of California, which usually starts around the first part of March.  The lack of rainfall means we're moving our sheep onto fresh grass more frequently (because the volume of grass is less than normal) - adding labor to an already labor-intensive season.  The weather, obviously, is beyond my control, but that doesn't keep me from worrying!

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