Rural Life

That’s What I Like About Ewe

Most of my sheep are, well, sheep. But then there’s No. 57.

This piece is adapted from Jon Katz’s new book, Dog Days: Dispatches From Bedlam Farm, published this month by Villard.

Ewe No. 57 (at right)

A few weeks after my new helper, Annie, started working at the farm, I noticed a change in the way my sheep were behaving. Usually, when they see my border collie Rose, they bunch together and wait, resignedly, to be shuttled to one pasture or another. But now they were rushing up to me and to other people. Sometimes they sniffed at my pockets. A couple of times they ran right around or over the shocked Rose, and it took some nipping and charging to set them straight.

This was a problem. Herding is a complex synergy, involving the movement and temperament of livestock, dogs, and humans. It looks pretty simple with a dog as competent as Rose, but it’s not. It works best when the dog and sheep are entirely focused on each other, when neither is sniffing around humans or otherwise distracted. So, when several of the ewes suddenly turned balky, ignoring or even butting at Rose, causing her to grow more aggressive in turn, it was disturbing.

What was going on?

I looked out my office window one morning to see Annie reaching into her pockets and offering the sheep, clustered around her, something to eat. I went outside and asked what she’d been feeding them.

“Oh, peanuts,” she said. “I always bring some with me for the sheep.”

Now I understood. The sheep had begun to associate people with their favorite thing—food—and so paid less attention to the dog. To do her job, therefore, Rose had to get uncharacteristically rough, a trait I didn’t want to encourage. So, Annie and I began our latest—and by no means last—disagreement about animal care. We’d already argued about feeding the dogs food from the table or from her lunch. We argued about how much time and money should be spent to keep alive a ewe. Now we jousted about whether it was a good idea to give sheep peanuts.

When it comes to sheep, there are a few I know and feel fond of, and they come up to me for scratches or to angle for some of the snacks I’m taking to the donkeys. There are two or three good mothers I respect. But mostly, their lack of individuality—they behave like sheep!—and their one-dimensional personalities don’t make it easy for me to attach to them.

Some people—including Annie—argue I’m underestimating the sheep because I encounter them only when I am with my dog. I regard them from a border collie perspective, and they associate me with being herded. Could be true. But I have only so much time and affection to share, I tell Annie. I have to make choices. Dogs come first, donkeys close behind, then the steer, then sheep, and then chickens.

I could say I love all my animals equally, but that would be a lie. It cost well over $1,000 for my yellow Lab Pearl’s multiple surgeries to repair damaged ligaments. I wouldn’t spend that on a ewe. When Izzy or Rose is sick, we rush to the vet. My pantry is crammed with treats, chews, and toys for the dogs. I’ve never brought treats to sheep, although I bring the donkeys cookies, and Elvis the steer gets his daily apples. I treat the flock well, provide the best food, freshest water, safest fences. I protect them from predators, give them their shots and deworming medication. But I’ve always been clear about why they’re here: to be herded by border collies.

The sheep epitomize the names-vs.-numbers cultures of animal care. When I call the large-animal vets, the dispatcher often asks if my animals have names or numbers. The question puzzled me, until experience and observation clarified it. People who name their animals see them as individual personalities and are much more likely to attribute humanlike emotions to them. I would never put a tag in Pearl’s ear and call her No. 12. But most farmers can’t afford to personify animals, so they give them numbers.

Vets know that animals with numbers are apt to be “production animals”—headed for market. Farmers won’t spend more on their care than the animal is worth: If the treatment cost exceeds the market price, the animal is likely to be euthanized. Whereas animals with names—not only dogs and horses but some sheep, goats, and alpacas—are seen as individuals, even family members. Their owners are far more likely to spend what it takes to make them well. Some vets treat only animals with numbers, others only animals with names.

Asking about nomenclature is as good a way as any for determining what kind of vet care people will pay for. My dogs and donkeys have names. So does Elvis (and Mother, my barn cat). And once or twice a week, I bring Elvis jelly doughnuts and Snickers bars, which he loves. And the donkeys get horse cookies and carrots every day. But only four of my sheep have names. Paula is the first ewe we bought, and I named her after my wife. Brutus is her good-natured son, a wether (neutered male). I also named both rams. But my favorite ewe actually has no name. She is called No. 57. Two years ago, No. 57 gave birth to healthy twin lambs, and in the melee of separating the sheep being sold to another farmer from the sheep who were staying, I mistakenly sent her lambs away. It was awful. She was the best, most conscientious mother in the flock, and her mournful bleating, though it lasted just two days, haunted me for weeks.

I bred the sheep again the next year, in some measure to give No. 57 another shot at motherhood. She’s the only one in the flock who has fought past the dogs to get to know me, the only one who shows individual personality traits. No. 57 comes trotting over to me, skittering around Rose to get her nose scratched and cadge a donkey cookie or carrot. She has a black face and big, bright eyes: As with the steer Elvis, it seems to me something is going on behind those eyes. Perhaps if I looked hard at the other ewes, I would see the same thing. The truth is, I don’t have the time, or need, to find out. Rose, seeing that I welcome her visits, gives No. 57 a pass.

So it was particularly odd, in early March, that No. 57 began charging at Rose when we entered the pasture, butting, even kicking her. Rose could not back her off or keep her at bay, nor could she get her to join the rest of the herd. It went on like this for five or six increasingly testy days, as Rose grew more focused on this ewe and began using her mouth to defend herself and try to move 57. I called the vet, who came and checked the ewe out.

“She’s fine,” he said. “Nothing wrong with her.”

So, I isolated her for two days, then let her out—and she went right at Rose again. “I think I may have to get rid of her her or even have her put down,” I told Annie. “This just isn’t healthy. She may be getting old or grumpy.” I didn’t want her turning Rose into a hunting dog instead of a herding dog; we’d worked too hard for that. One morning, I warned Annie, No. 57 just might not be here. Annie, horrified, disagreed. I soon heard from friends that she was frantically calling around, trying to find a new home for 57.

Soon afterward, riding up the pasture on the ATV to take another look, I saw with chagrin the reason for the ewe’s out-of-character behavior. It was ridiculously simple: No. 57 was lying down with Jesus, the newborn donkey. A vigilant mother, even if the baby wasn’t hers, she was trying to stay between him and Rose. I told Annie she didn’t have to find a new home for 57; the ewe was more than welcome to stay. In a week or two, I suspected, 57 would relax and calm down and let Rose do her job. Sure enough, in a few days, she and Rose had worked things out and herding returned to normal.

Annie told me she didn’t really believe that I would have killed my favorite ewe. She might be right. But I think I could have gotten rid of her, and if there are future problems, I would. And, more than ever, I don’t think sheep need peanuts.