13 July, 2016

I’ve been putting off writing this post

Not long after lambing season kicked off, our regular hay guy ran out of hay. No big deal, I thought, we’d just use another supplier to get us through the couple of months until his first cutting was ready. I found someone else who could deliver round bales and thought my hay problems were solved.

And then sheep started dying. I looked for parasites, I looked for subclinical illness, I wracked my brain and laid awake at night going over every detail and came up with nothing. Sheep kept dying. I dreaded doing the chores because I didn’t want to find another one down.

Finally in desperation I sent hay samples out for testing. It was the only thing that has changed. And changed it had. Results came back showing levels of copper much, much too high for sheep. The lab said the overall profile of heavy metals etc was common for hay fields that had been treated with biosolids – aka dried sewage. The hay from those fields is fine for cows but lethal for sheep. I hadn’t even thought to ask when buying the hay, and as a result of my mistake I lost two Soay ewes and their lambs plus my little Rambouillet wether.

I’m still grieving my sheep. I hate that when I make mistakes, it’s my animals who pay, sometimes with their lives. The only recourse in this matter I might have is small claims court but that’s a roll of the dice and I don’t have the time or energy to pursue it. I did leave the guy a message telling him not to sell hay to shepherds anymore.

The happy ending is that my regular hay guy had a fabulous first cut after a wet spring, and with healthy hay, summer grazing, a protein tub, and slightly increased grain rations the rest of the sheep are recovering beautifully. The goats thrived, their mineral needs are more similar to cattle than sheep and they require amounts of copper that will kill their ovine cousins (I normally provide it via rumen bolus).

29 February, 2016

I’m being ever so patient.

From my previous adventures breeding goats, I’m accustomed to the face of a heavily pregnant ruminant who is severely regretting her adventures with a handsome male member of her species 5 months previously. I say “ruminant” and not “goat” because it has become apparently lately that in fact Soay sheep ewes get exactly the same face.

Here, Relationsheep and a friend will demonstrate:
Relationsheep, a moderately light brown ewe with a pale cream belly, stands with her body in profile to the camera and her face turned three quarters toward it. Her belly is enormous, giving her whole body an appearance of heaviness. Her eyes are narrowed and her ears stick out at an angle that implies that she's just done with everything ever, but especially rams and most especially being pregnant. Lying down on the right is a ewe who is a rich dark chocolate brown who has exactly the same look on her face.
Those are two ewes who do not want to talk to Ferrington, even though he had nothing to do with getting them in a lamby way. They do not wish to speak to energetic young wethers like Reuben and Urdo, either, or bouncy baby goats. They want to enjoy this here sunbeam and not be pregnant anymore.

In my experience with goats, once they start getting this look on their faces it is at most 4 weeks until babies make an appearance. I’m mentally placing bets with myself as to whether Relationsheep and her friend there are going to present me with twins or if they’re just the sort of sheep who look enormous when they’re pregnant with one tiny single lamb. It could go either way, really, I’m not familiar enough with sheep to say. What’s driving me absolutely nuts is that sheep carry their tails down unless they’re pooping and their udders are hidden under a generous layer of belly wool, so I can’t reliably check either their vulvas or their udders to get an idea of how close they are. And they’re definitely not going to let me get close enough to grope their tail ligaments so I can check for softening! They are only slightly more interested in speaking to me than they are in speaking with the rest of the world that isn’t pregnant ewes, i.e. if I don’t have a bucket of grain I can go to hell and stop bothering them and must I breathe so very loudly and stomp around like that?

So here I am, being very very patient and waiting for lambs without being able to do anything but stare at sheep who are busy giving me the evil eye right back while they cud and plot the demise of all rams ever because they’re so very tired of being pregnant. In fact I think the ewes at this point are more interested in seeing lambs than I am, since then they won’t be carrying them around anymore!

14 January, 2016

So much new life in the pasture

Let’s do some photos, shall we? At two weeks old, and with the mud finally freezing, May’s babies are getting out of the barn and doing some exploring. And of course last weekend Kate-with-Soays dropped off 5 beautiful new Soay ewes! With seven new faces in the pasture I don’t know where to turn my camera, honestly.

A leggy sheep with fleece in shades of gold and sharp black trim walks toward the camera, pursued by two tiny goats. One is white with a red blanket, dramatic red eyeshadow, and black highlights on her legs. The other is pale tan with a black blanket, black knee socks, and sharp black diamonds over her eyes. They both have long floppy ears and are soft and fluffy.
Ella was rather dubious about her tiny entourage, as you can tell by the set of her ears and the way she angled her head to keep an eye on them.

The tan and black baby goat, Spice, sucks on my fingertip.
Spice pauses in the middle of exploration to find out if my fingers are food. Spoiler: they are not.

A tiny sheep, about knee high on your average human, nuzzles at my hand. His body fleece is golden-red-brown, while his face is a complex mix of cream and ash brown hairs that yield subtle stripes from his eyes to his muzzle.
Reuben seeks reassurance that despite all the new animals, he’s still my favorite Soay. Of course you are, little buddy!

Three Soay ewes rush past side on to the camera. They are varying shades of auburn brown, made darker by the angle of the light. Their bellies and insides of their legs are creamy pale, and there are markings around their eyes in the same color.
The new ewes are still in Confused Sheep mode, which means they stand still and stare at things then rush off. Here three are rushing between sets of grain dishes because a pig got too close to them. I love their graceful, high-stepping gait. Horse people will probably notice that the one in back is pacing (the legs on each side move together, rather than diagonal legs moving together). So far I’ve identified three or my seven ewes as pacers, which is intriguing. Unfortunately it’s not something the scientists on Hirta are studying. However it’s probably genetic, and if you study pics of Soays found online you can identify a lot of pacing sheep. To complicate matters, my pacing ewes sometimes trot. If I ever win the lottery, I’m funding a grant to study the locomotion of the population on Hirta.

24 December, 2015

A new year, new ewes

Excitement! My friend Kate-with-Soays (not to be confused with my friends Kate-the-author or Kate-with-cats-and-soap and yes Kate-with-Soays needs a website) hit upon a fabulous deal on Soay ewes, at less than half their usual sale price, and graciously shared it with me! You may in fact have noticed the latest round of crowd-funding to expand the herd.

The new ewes have genetics I don’t already have, and have been sending time with an equally worthy ram. This will mean at least five but potentially eight ewes unrelated to Ferrington will be here, opening up the possibility that I can isolate his daughters from him and keep him an extra year before I move him on. Which would be nice, because I’m fond of Ferrington. He’s small for a ram and mellow and good with goats, sheep and humans (pigs occasionally drive him to violence and have learned to avoid him). So another breeding year with him would be no hardship, really.

The three new ewes are mouflon-patterned like my current flock, but come from South Carolina. And that is the extent of what I know as Kate-with-Soays will be surprising me with three of the six she picked up when she made the trip to get them. Unless of course the rain here in the southeast stops and she gets a chance to get pictures — cross your fingers!

At any rate, they will be here in January and then there will be an unstoppable deluge of pictures over on Instagram (they also get automatically broadcast to the farm Facebook page), so stand by.

Other things to look forward to: lambing should start in February, so cross your fingers that the winter stays mild. Ella and Mabel’s lambs will be raised for meat, Soay lambs get to live and grow wool. There may also be piglets around the same time, all of whom will be available as pasture-maintainers, pets, and meat. And of course now that rabbits are back up and breeding like, well, rabbits, there will be an endless assortment of meat bricks, a few of whom will get held over to provide prime furs next winter.

2 November, 2015

Shepherd’s Calendar

“We are as gods to beasts of the field. We order the time of their birth and the time of their death. Between times, we have a duty.” — Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men

It’s time to start building lambing jugs, which despite the name are not actually jugs. They’re small pens, in which a ewe gives birth and is confined for a few days with her new lambs, so that they’ll bond and the shepherd can monitor them all to make sure both mother and lambs are healthy. I don’t really expect the Soays to need them, you don’t survive for a couple thousand years on a tiny rock in the North Sea, the farthest west of any of the Outer Hebrides, because you have a tendency to forget you gave birth and wander off without your lamb. But there’s Ella the American Blackbelly sheep and Mabel the Southdown ewe, both of which are more modern breeds that may require some assistance in remembering that yes, this small bleating woolly thing belongs to them and requires their care.

A small rocky island formed from the tip of an ancient mountain rises from the North Sea. Its sides are steep and its top is wreathed in mist. There's a carpet of grass, but no shelter to be seen.
Inselsoay” by Olaf1950Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

The Soay Island that Soay sheep come from. When you were bred to survive a rock in the North Sea, Virginia weather is laughably mild and you tend to remember that you gave birth.

Lambs should start arriving in February, if Ferrington has done his job. I was slightly worried at first that he was incapable, since I’m used to goats and let me tell you, male goats make sure you know that they have a penis and like to use it. More experienced shepherds have reassured me that rams are much shyer creatures, preferring to woo the ladies at night when no inquisitive shepherd is around to watch. Unlike goat bucks, rams also don’t pee all over their own faces to make themselves attractive to the ladies, and in the absence of another ram with whom to have junk-measuring contests, you may never actually see a ram’s reproductive apparatus beyond his enormous, dangling testicles. The more you know.

But I digress. The lambing jugs will be built in the barn, so that ewes and lambs are sheltered from the occasional winter storm. Adult sheep are extremely weather resistant and the Soays honestly barely seem to notice rain unless it’s absurdly heavy, but lambs are small and their surface area to volume ratio is much more conducive to hypothermia than it is for adult sheep, even with their woolly fleeces to keep them warm. While some shepherds with breeds and flocks selected for being excellent mothers choose to let ewes lamb in the fields, I’m more conservative, especially since this is the first time for both me and the ewes. I’ve handled goat births no problem, but sheep are startlingly different animals for all that they and goats are nearly indistinguishable skeletally. And I have a duty.

Every sheep is more than a sheep; it is all the sheep it has ever been, and everything we have done to them, and everything they have done for us. — Elodie Under Glass

After lambing, round about April or so, comes rooing the hair sheep and shearing the wool sheep. Rooing a sheep means simply to round it up and pluck the shedding wool from it so that humans can use the wool, rather than leaving the sheep to scratch the wool off on trees and the barn. In the days when Soay sheep were the cutting edge of farming, rooing would have been a social affair: the sheep would have been rounded up in their winter pastures and brought down to pens near villages, and everyone would get together and have a fine time plucking sheep. At the end, the newly naked-er sheep would have been taken to their spring pastures, and village life would have moved on to planting.

Rooing is surprisingly hard work, mostly because you have to catch the sheep and set it on its butt (which causes sheep to relax and go immobile) and then pluck, and pluck, and pluck, pausing to stash your precious handfulls of wool in sacks. Do it too early and you’ll be doing it all over again later, do it too late and you’ll be scavenging wool from tree branches, fence posts, and the sides of your barn and hay feeder. Shearing is much more convenient, at least for the shepherd, because timing isn’t so very important. Gather up the sheep, shave them bald, and call it good and move on to processing the fleece.

Damp weather shows off crimp and increasing length of beautiful red-brown Soay fleece.
At least the Soays are small, so rooing them will be much faster than Ella and Tyson.

Every man can tell how many goats or sheep he possesses, but not how many friends. — Marcus Tullius Cicero

In summer the spring lambs are reaching the age where they’re old enough to be sold. Sometime in June, Ferrington’s sons will hopefully head off to spread their genetics into new herds of Soays, preserving the gift of DNA that ancient shepherds left for us on the small rocky island in the North Sea. Ferrington himself will also be seeking a new herd, as his daughters will remain here to build my own little flock of Soays. I’ll exchange him for a ram as unrelated to my ewes as I can manage to find. The Soay cross lambs from Mabel and Ella, on the other hand, will stay here and get fat on pasture and hay. In summer one or two of them will probably be slaughtered for the table and to keep the load on our pastures low. The rest will eat, and may be offered to one or two shepherds who want to experiment with adding Soay blood to their flocks. Honestly, it depends on whether I need cash or meat more.

And then a few months later, at the start of fall, the remaining extraneous lambs (including any of Ferrington’s sons that didn’t head for new homes) will go to slaughter, as we pare down the flock to only the animals we want to support over the winter. Hay costs double with cold weather and a lack of pasture, so it’s important to keep flock size to something supportable. And thanks to the growing demand for local food, there’s good odds that I can manage to sell some of the meat provided I can afford to use a USDA inspected slaughter-house.

Meanwhile, the young ewes will be separated so that they don’t get pregnant too young, the older ewes will begin cycling and growing in their wool, and the entire calendar swings back to the beginning, with the exception of lambing jugs already being built.

23 September, 2015

Let’s call this Training Week. Pigs learn fast.

It’s very much fun to be doing actual training with the critters. Pigs learn really fast, and Tethys is eating cookies within touching distance already, so I’ve moved on to teaching her to recognize her name. This is an easy process: I say her name, then I give her a cookie. She’ll probably have it down by this weekend.

The head of a pig, obviously quite close to the camera. She is mostly black with a white stripe on the left side of her neck and another right between her eyes. Since this is the alt text, we'll pretend the picture isn't a little blurry.
Tethys eating a cookie right by my feet!

Janus is taking a little longer learning to approach, but he’s getting there! The difficulty of pigs of course course is that while they’re smart as hell, they’re not naturally inclined to listen to human voices and watch human faces like dogs are. Selective breeding makes an enormous difference in animal behavior, really, and nothing will make that more clear than playing training games.

The Soays present an even bigger conundrum: I’m still looking for an easy reward that they find meaningful. The ewes Lady Jane and Gwendolyn are easy: they want me to go away. So I walk up as close as they’ll let me, stand for a moment, tell them “Mamogion da!” (Good ewes! In Welsh) and then turn and walk away. I’ve successfully halved their flight distance using this and grain. The wethers however are much more human-social, yet not big on cookies.

The back of a little brown sheep's head, showing off the elegant sweep of his black horns. He is eating pelleted grain ration from a black rubber dish and studiously ignoring the animal cracker in the center of the same dish.
Reuben says cookies just aren’t that interesting.

They are enthused about the little bit of sweet feed they get, but it’s really difficult to use that in discrete chunks as a reward. I may end up making little wodges of oats stuck together with molasses and baked dry to try. Even if the sheep don’t eat them, the goats most certainly will, so they won’t go to waste!

Meanwhile Sebastian is learning to target and touch my open hand, which is a necessary first step to teaching him to lead with a halter instead of his current behavior when I try to lead him, which involves bracing his legs and becoming immovable.

A mahogany red goat with black horns, black stripes on his face and white poll, ears, and nose stretches up to touch my my hand with his nose.
Sebastian will target all day if your hand smells of cookies.

Sebastian has really mastered cookie Zen, which means he gets to move on to things like targeting and learning to wear a harness. His half-brother Sanglant is still really struggling with the idea that to get the cookie, you shouldn’t try to get the cookie. Every fiber of Sanglant’s curious and determined goat brain wants to treat my hand like a puzzle toy, but he’s finally beginning to back off and accept that only through patient waiting will cookies come to him.

The one thing I don’t have pics of, because I need to enlist my husband, is teaching Ella the American Blackbelly ewe to do classic obedience healing. She’s been offering it voluntarily for a few months when I have the grain scoop, so I figured why not work on putting it on cue? Hopefully I can get pics in time for Friday’s post!

21 September, 2015

Training games are the same, no matter the species

I’ve used various elements of Sue Ailsby’s Levels for dogs for more than a few years now. They will helpfully give you a structured way to teach your dog a bunch of very useful life skills. Recently, though, I’ve been using them on goats, who can use many of the same life skills, like “not being an obnoxious shit if a human is holding food”.

Using cheap cookies and my voice instead of a clicker, I’m particularly working on Food Zen. Some goats are catching on quite quickly that backing off makes a treat appear. Other goats are a little slower. The best goats, of course, are the ones who are already polite (and get lots of cookies for that).

A mahogany red goat with white ears and nose and a heavy sprinkling of white hair throughout her coat nuzzles at my hand while watching my face.
Siri tried biting my hand and that didn’t work, so she shifted to gently nuzzling my hand. But no treats appeared until she broke contact with the treat hand.

I need to keep working on it, but Siri grasped pretty quickly that standing at a polite distance and looking at my face got her cookies. Sanglant, on the other hand, just could not believe there wasn’t a way to brute force getting a cookie. He tried many, many ways to get my hand to open, but none of them involved NOT trying to maul my hand for a cookie. He’ll get it eventually I’m sure, but meanwhile Sebastian is highly amenable to positive training so I’m going to start teaching him to work in harness and do silly tricks.

The other animals that need training are the mini pigs Janus and Tethys. They’ve settled down around us a lot but still won’t approach, which is no good when they’ll eventually need routine care. So right now I just sit still and wait, and if they approach voluntarily within five feet I start gently tossing cookies to them. It took about two cookies apiece before they were standing about four feet away, so I gave them another couple cookies and ended the session. Tomorrow they’ll have to come closer than four feet, and so on until they will eat cookies from between my feet. I probably won’t teach them to take cookies from my hands since pig teeth are sharp and I don’t want to have to teach them Cookie Zen later!

Once the pigs are approaching confidently, it will be time to teach them basic skills like letting us examine their hooves and run our hands over them to check body condition. Pigs are clever beasts so I don’t expect it to take long if I let them lead the way and tell me what they’re comfortable with.

I’ll also be working with the Soays in the same way just as soon as I discover a reward they find meaningful.

Using positive reward systems to train various species is a lot of fun because of the cooperative aspect. Prey species like goats and sheep aren’t particularly amenable to harsher methods since it takes very little stress to kick them over into fight-or-flight responses. While you can get results from punishment-based training methods with some species, there’s not a lot of joy in hurting an animal until it does what you want.

14 August, 2015

Sheep smarts, a brief follow-up

Yesterday morning we went out to find that Frankie, a goat wether, had broken off the ends of his Stick of Shame and had his head stuck in the hay feeder. Again.

Right next to him was Reuben, the friendlier of the Soay wethers. Reuben’s horns actually have a wider spread than Frankie’s and more of a hook, so I was pretty sure Reuben was stuck, too. But as Daniel and I approached to wrestle Frankie out of the hay feeder, Reuben nonchalantly maneuvered his horns backwards through the gap and wandered off.

So in terms of spatial awareness and the ability to problem-solve, at least one sheep in this world is smarter than two of my goats (Thea also periodically gets her head stuck).

A small reddish brown moderately woolly sheep stands sideways to the camera. He is looking back behind him, so we see the right side of his body but the left side of his face.
You win this round, Reuben. That’ll do, little man.

12 August, 2015

How smart are sheep?

When I asked on Twitter for my followers to inspire today’s blog post, two people almost immediately wanted to know: are sheep as stupid as people think they are?

All five Soays march toward me in a determined fashion, led by Urdo the wether.

It’s a little bit of a complicated question. The short answer is no, sheep are in their own way bright and curious creatures, if flighty as hell compared to goats. Sheep can be trained, and while a flock is at first glance a mindless mob, there’s actually some really interesting social dynamics going on.

But they’re not, y’know, geniuses. Let me demonstrate with an anecdote. Periodically when we’re moving fences, a couple Soays escape. We’ve set up a sheep trap consisting of a 4 foot tall puppy exercise pen with a dish of grain in it and a long string attached to the door so it can be closed from a distance. Inevitably (and quite quickly now that they know about the grain) if I sit quietly on the milk stand, the escaped sheep will walk right into the sheep trap and I will pull the door gently shut behind them.

This trick wouldn’t work on goats. A goat would remember where the door is and charge it, and given that I’m holding it shut with tension on a long rope cobbled together from pieces of baling twine, the goat would escape. The sheep, however, totally forget where the door was and spin in confused circles, so we latch the door, lean over and grab the sheep, and take them back to the flock. It works every time, and in fact the more it happens the easier it gets, because the escaped sheep beeline for the trap and its dish of grain. Supposing I did manage to trap a goat, they’d never set foot in that pen again. Goats have great memories and hold a grudge; sheep brains seem to be easily short-circuited by a pan of sweet feed.

At the same time, none of the Soays have ever gotten their horns caught in the hay feeder, whereas any goat that can get their horns through it will, and then will forget how to get their horns back out, leading to us taping a Stick of Shame to them to prevent them getting trapped.

Frankie, a brown and white wether, has a Stick taped across his horns and extending three or four inches out on each side. He does not ahead to be amused.

So the question of sheep intellect isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. Certainly they are smarter than people think they are, but a really bright sheep still isn’t all that smart. But they are curious, gentle creatures, and a pleasure to keep.

7 August, 2015

A Paradigm Shift to Conservation Breeding

Previously in my livestock endeavors, I’ve been making specific selections for traits (or collections thereof) that I really like in animals, as farmers have been doing for millennia. So I’ve bred for goats with nice, moderate conformation; good hooves; feed efficiency; and milk production. I’ve turned the chickens loose to free range and selected for hardy, wily birds that reproduce well. I’ve selected rabbits for those that thrive in a colony situation on a varied diet.

But then came the Soays. The gene pool is so limited, globally, that if breeders were to start selecting for conformation, or wool production, or meat, or whatever, that we would quickly and disastrously run out of genetic material to work with. This is especially true in the US, where the original population of Soays was just six sheep. Although the gene pool has been augmented since the original herd by imported semen from the UK, we’re still working with a severely restricted gene pool, a tiny slice of an already small pie.

An elegant Soay ewe, long-legged, lean, and small compared to modern sheep breeds. She has a warm brown-auburn fleece, small horns, and dark patient eyes.

Breeding Soay sheep therefore becomes an entirely different game: preserving the genetic legacy of each healthy animal. You might cull for health, but not for color or conformation or quality of wool or fast growth. Instead of looking at fleeces, you’re looking at pedigrees, trying to find the furthest outcross available to you.

A sad knock-on effect of this from my point of view is that small flocks like mine can rarely keep a ram more than two years. As soon as any of his daughters are retained, a ram needs to move along to spread his genes elsewhere. So while I do adore my ram Ferrington, he won’t be here for the long term like the ewes and wethers.

Ferrington stands side-on to the camera. He has a heavy body, a mahogany fleece, and a long black ruff of guard hairs on the front and back of his neck. His horns are exactly what you think of when you think of ram horns. His face is black, with white under the chin and striking white eyebrows, and he has a Roman nose.

It’s an interesting mental shift for me from selecting for production to preservation, but very rewarding work. I spend my time studying pedigrees of the three Soay flocks nearest to me, looking for someone who might have a ram for me in 2017, and balancing distance against the genetic diversity of my flock. Someday maybe I’ll be able to import semen to artificially inseminate my own ewes, and more actively contribute to helping preserve these tiny woolly jewels.