Sunday, 9 August 2015

Speak like a sheep

Among those who keep sheep there appears to be two schools of thought. One is that sheep are stupid animals who are committed to finding ways to die. The other is that sheep are smart and keen to ensure their own survival. Well they can't both be right can they? 
It's true that the more highly strung breeds of sheep can be given to such extreme acts of panic that they seem almost self destructive or that in an attempt to find food just about any sheep can get themselves into all sorts of trouble. So I suppose the end result of that blind terror or strong survival instinct can be seen as an act of ovine stupidity.Though it is equally true though that with calm, consistent handling, routine, repetition and reward, sheep can can clearly demonstrate their intelligence and willingness to cooperate and communicate with each other and with us.

Nelly demonstrates how far she is prepared to
stretch herself in order to reach a tasty morsel

Sheep live in family groups and as their shepherd we become part of that family. They use smell and sight to recognise us and each other also respond to our pattern of speaking and tone of voice. A lamb learns to recognise its mothers bleat as different from all the other ewes in the field and can also learn to recognise it's shepherds voice as a source of food and comfort. 
A chin scratch for little Bruno

Despite having a very thick fleece, sheep are very sensitive to touch and even when squashed up with other sheep and with their head buried in a trough, they can still tell the difference between the contact from another sheep or the touch of their shepherds hand. Once a sheep or lamb has become familiar with the experience of being stroked or scratched by their shepherd, then most sheep find it a pleasurable experience which they will solicit at any opportunity.

Just how comfortable sheep are with all this human contact however does depend very much on the breed and also on individual sheep. This is in part because sheep also learn by watching each other and if a lambs mum is confident and happy to have a cuddle from her shepherd then the lambs will be too. Nervous sheep, create nervous sheep and one skittish ewe can communicate a sense of danger to a whole flock of otherwise calm sheep.  

Elvis prepares for a head butt

Sheep use body language to communicate with each other, standing tall and pulling ears back to threaten a charge, lowering the head and side swiping to assert them selves and mounting to dominate others and get their share at the feed trough as well as kicking or scraping with the front leg to stimulate feeding or petting. Although the non verbal communication between sheep is limited they are capable of learning lots of signs and signals from their keeper. I use clapping, leg patting, waving, crouching, kneeling, running (away from ) and pointing to communicate a range of messages to my sheep along with a small number of verbal commands.

The secret however to all successful communication is to seek first to understand and then be understood. So taking the time to interpret what your sheep are thinking and feeling and how they communicate this through their bodies and expressions is very important. This enables two way communication as you are able to read your sheep and respond accordingly. Successful handling also comes from knowing what your sheep are likely to do in any given situation and planning ahead for that.
Nose to nose with Tiger-lilly- Trust is hard to earn but can be easily lost

 Sheep will always opt to move towards well lit places rather than dark ones and will prefer to go uphill when herded rather than down hill. If the route that you want them to take is cluttered, partially obscured, has dark areas or moving shadows this is likely to make them bolt the other way. Creating a clear route or race for your sheep with a food treat at the end of it will work like a charm. 

Inciting them is always more effective than chasing them but make sure that you always reward them as they have very good memories and wont fall for the same trick twice if the experience is a bad one. So if you encourage them from one place to another by shaking a bucket. Make sure that they receive the contents of the bucket when the get to their destination. 
Poor Lucy looks for the reward in her bucket only to find that is is full of lambies!

Lastly, no matter how fed up and frustrated they make you, don't take it out on them. Sheep like all animals live in the moment. They don't brood over things, bare grudges, have bad moods, act spitefully or take revenge. So they don't understand it when we do. Admittedly they can test the patience of a saint at times particularly when we are not in the mood for their "unhelpful" behavior. But treating them with anger, punishment or cruelty will never achieve the desired effect and will destroy the trust necessary for their cooperation.. Kindness, patience, reward and understanding always wins the day. Oh and 4 strong hurdles and a bucket of feed come in handy too!

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