Monday, January 21, 2008

A useful beast

When I arrived to do my chores today, I discovered that my lambs had grown impatient for balage, gotten out, and mixed themselves in with the ewes, whose bales were recently refreshed.

This left me with the task of separating the two groups. Initially I figured that I would go back to the barn, get out the handling gear, drag it out to the field, set it up, shed out the lambs, put them back where they belong, pack it back up, and haul it back to the barn. This is about a two-hour process -- mostly setting up and packing up and hauling back and forth.

I decided instead to have a go at shedding the lambs out of the ewes with my good dog, Tweed. Tweed's a little hot to trot, so I spent about 10 minutes getting his mind right -- just getting him to calm down, listen to me, and work with me, rather than assuming that he knew what the job was.

Shedding using a dog is very exacting, precise work. You start with all the sheep between the handler and the dog. When you get a good sized group of sheep that should be in one group at the front of the group, you call the dog in, cut them out from the rest of the group. The handler then drives the small group away while the dog holds the remaining sheep back so they don't follow. Repeat this process over and over again until all the ewes are in one group and all the lambs are in the other.

Sheep want to stay together. The attraction is like a magnet or gravity: the smaller group is drawn to the larger one, and the effect is weakened by distance. Once that first small group has been driven off far enough that it won't want to re-join the main group, you can use it to draw other small groups so you don't have to drive them as far from the main group on subsequent cuts.

The strategy is key: You want end up with the smaller of the two final groups held by the dog. If you try to drive off the smaller group, it will constantly be trying to get back to the bigger group, requiring the handler to stop manipulating the mixed group to drive them back again. In this case, there were 21 lambs and 79 ewes, so Tweed's job was to hold the lambs and let the ewes go. My job was to shift the sheep around until there were some ewes ready to leave the main group, but no lambs.

Tweed had to listen to me. There's no way that either one of us could do this job alone. His job is to hold what I tell him to hold, and let sheep run away when I tell him to. For a Border collie, letting sheep run away is one of the hardest things imaginable. For Tweed, listening to me is hard at first, but after a while it starts to make sense.

But half an hour later, we had 21 lambs in one corner of the field and 79 ewes in the other. There was one mother-daughter pair that held together until the end, and we probably spent more time getting that last lamb out of the ewe flock than the other 20 combined. We had to regather the whole flock once, when two lambs slipped past Tweed. At that point, we had made two cuts, taking about five or six ewes each time. The two lambs squeaked in with the third cut, which had 10 ewes in it. I probably just got greedy and should have taken two cuts with fewer sheep rather than one big one.

Anyway, a job that would have been a fairly odious and time consuming chore became a way to spend a bright winter's morning with my dog, in close enough contact with the sheep to really get a good eye on each and every one of them, and get a job done in a quarter of the time it would have taken otherwise.

I really must learn to trust my dogs more often.

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