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Why Shepherds Worry

Our flock of ewes started lambing last Saturday.  While I love this time of year (I've written previously that lambing season is like six weeks of Christmas), I also worry during lambing.  I try to limit my worrying to things I can do something about, but I'm not always successful at this!  I worry about having enough forage for the sheep at this critical time of year (especially during this drought). I worry about missing a lambing problem and losing a lamb or a ewe (or both). I worry about making sure the sheep have vegetation or other shelter during inclement weather (we don't have a lambing barn).  I worry about predators.  I worry about getting enough sleep!

I've realized this past week that one must actually be a shepherd to understand these anxieties.  About three weeks ago, I checked in with a homeowner in the area where we're grazing about the availability of a 15+ acre field that we wanted to graze on our way to other properties.  This landowner has been coordinating with his neighbors, and the field was critical to our plans.  With the dry weather we had in January, we needed to give our previously grazed pastures enough rest before grazing them again.  Even with the December rains, we only have about 50 percent of the grass we'd expect at this time of year.  The 10-15 days that this new field would support our sheep became a vital part of our grazing plans during lambing.  Through a miscommunication between neighbors, it turns out that this field was not available.  Had we known this three weeks ago, we might have hauled the sheep to another property; now that we're lambing, we don't want to put the ewes and lambs on a trailer (another worry).  The homeowner suggested that we simply skip around the neighborhood to lots with more forage - also difficult to do with ewes and young lambs.  In our pasture lambing system, long moves can often disrupt the bonding process between lambs and ewes. And so I worry.

When I went out to check the flock on Monday evening, I encountered a neighbor dog I didn't recognize.  He desperately wanted to get inside the fence.  Fortunately, my guard dogs were all over the situation.  I later figured out that he belonged to a neighbor several properties away. When the neighbor's young daughter came to retrieve the dog, I made sure that she understood what would happen if the dog came back (or worse, if I had dead sheep).  Neither she nor the homeowner where we had the sheep seemed to realize the extent of my concern - surely a sweet pet dog wouldn't hurt sheep!

Now I'm worried about the weather.  Over this weekend, the weather has turned colder (although we didn't get the rain that was predicted).  The sheep can handle inclement weather fine, even during lambing - if I'm prepared.  This weekend, our preparations meant that we moved the flock off the open hillside where they'd been grazing (and where there was still more grass) into a wooded pasture that offers shelter from the wind and rain.  I moved the ewes that hadn't lambed first, along with the ewes that had older lambs.  The newest "pairs" followed along more slowly, and in some cases I carried the lambs while their mothers followed behind.  A move that would normally take five minutes took more than an hour.  And I always worry about lambs getting mixed up when we move; I remained with the sheep until I was certain that every lamb was with its mother.  I find that non-shepherds don't understand the attention to detail and planning necessary for raising sheep.  As Ivan Doig writes, "To be successful with sheep, even when you're not thinking about them, you'd better think about them a little."

As frustrating as the lack of understanding of non-shepherds can be, I've also been comforted by the understanding and friendship my fellow shepherds (and stock people).  I was at a meeting on Thursday from which I needed to depart early to get back and check the sheep.  There were several other shepherds at the meeting, each of whom was entirely understanding.  Today, I postponed a trip to look at some ewe lambs we might purchase because I was worried about the weather.  Again, the rancher I was planning to visit understood my desire to put off the trip for another week.

All stock people, I think, understand this sense of worry.  We cope with uncertain markets, unreliable weather, and all sorts of other challenges (man-made and natural) because we love what we do.  Those of us who are good at it (and those of us, like me, who are striving to become good at it) will always worry.  I guess worry is part of being a shepherd!


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