A Prickly Subject

by Callie B.

As a shepherd, I find myself doing some very strange things.
Today involved walking around in the small pasture where the ewes currently reside, bent over staring at the ground like a hound dog on the trail of it’s prey. I was picking up sweet gum balls, you see. They are ping pong ball sized seed pods covered in spikes that hurt immensely when stepped on with bare feet.  They are vicious little enemies, bent on counteracting all our hard work to keep the sheep’s fleeces clean. They embed themselves in the wool, particularity on the sheep’s bellies, which must be terribly uncomfortable for the poor things to lie on.
Picking them up was a rather futile attempt, because there are thousands of them, and more that haven’t come down yet. If Jim Craig in The Man From Snowy River had been a sheep farmer, he might have said “You’d sooner hold back the tide as pick up sweet gum balls.”
I shuffled along, squinting at the  the ground, fearsome thoughts of eradicating every sweet gum tree on the farm seething through my head as I wondered if my back would be permanently stuck in a hairpin shape by the time I was done.

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On the cheerful side, a good part of this time was also frittered away squatting in front of my sheep, nose to nose, scratching their chins, and surreptitiously pulling sweet gum balls and hay out of their wool before they realized what I was doing. If you’ve never gotten  up close and personal with a sheep, you must do so at some time in your life. It is calming, peaceful, grounding. Their wool is full of lanolin which makes your fingers sticky, but also leaves them soft. Lanolin is used in many lotions, and also in makeup and shampoo products. Sheep have big soft eyes, and if you find the sweet spot right behind their ears where they most love to be scratched, they look utterly content, and you feel deeply adored.

The sheep stalked me around the pasture as I worked. This is new for some of them, especially the lambs. When we had lambs for the first time last year, I envisioned them being sort of helpless at first. I would get them used to me before they were big enough to get away, and by then, they would come up to me of their own accord. Alas, practically from the day they are born, Shetland lambs are up and about, very fast, and very shy. Without tackling them, it was impossible to pet them, and I hated to traumatize the tiny things. Before I left for an extended stay in Colorado this past Fall, I tried in vain to make the lambs from that Spring friendly, and get them to come up to me for scratches. They were still very skittish, and would not be approached other then Flower, whom I tricked into being friendly by sneaking up to her in the barn and scratching her through the fence while she wasn’t looking. When she realized what was sticking through fence (a human hand, horrors!) she jumped a mile, but it was too late. She had discovered that she loved scratches, and was cautiously friendly after that.
Low and behold, when I came home from Colorado, all the lambs were suddenly friendly! They would come right up to me! I was flattered, imagining they had missed me, and happy that we were getting along so well. Mom burst my sunshiny theories by explaining that they had been getting snacks of grain (which is like crack for sheep), and were simply schmoozing me in the hopes of a treat.
The bravest ones came up and rubbed against my legs, or chewed on my shirt tail, and the shyer set tip-toed behind,  eyes bright with curiosity.

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I ended up with a couple basket-fulls of the prickly pods before I gave up, and took great satisfaction in heaving them onto the burn pile. (Take that you nasty sweet gum Sheep Torturers!)

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Eradicating sweet gum trees, or at least the ones bordering the pastures, is actually a possibility, since Dad can use them to make lumber with his saw mill. But it will take a very long time, and be an ongoing process.
Meanwhile, work like this is just yet another part of being a shepherd to wool sheep. The fleeces require an immense amount of careful management to be in top condition so that they command a premium price. The more vegetation, burrs, etc. in a fleece, the more fiber mills charge to process it. Or else you just get back roving full of vegetable matter (known as VM in the fiber world).
Feeding them hay is another issue, as no matter how carefully you distribute their food so as not to get it on them, they tend to take a mouthful and slowly chew over their neighbors back while looking at you with lazy triumph in their eyes. Sort of an eyes-half-closed-amusement that they are making your life harder.
The summertime is much easier, they eat only grass, and are on clean pastures, rather then the mud of the barn yard. The fleeces are beautifully shiny and neat.This leads me to toy with the idea of shearing twice a year, once before lambing, like we always do, and add a second shearing in the late summer, to take of advantage of how pristine the fleeces are . There are varying opinions on this subject, one farm says that they shear twice a year with good results, another says that the fleeces do not grow quickly enough to shear a second time. So it will have to be an experiment, something we try to see if it works for our sheep, and our climate.

While shepherding is a lot of work, sometimes a lot of worry, and occasionally expensive, it is deeply rewarding, a lifestyle in which you see directly the results of your labor, one in which, if done properly,  you work in harmony with the land, “dressing and keeping it”, as we were meant to do, and moving slowly but steadily towards a more sustainable and healthier way of life.

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