Working Up To It

Written on 01/04/2021

So, with "husbandry" came a few things that, at first, I wasn't so sure about. I certainly wasn't prepared to be giving injections with giant, gnarly needles (I hate needles and pass out when I give blood). Nor was I all that keen to be popping my shoulder-glove-covered arm into the birth canal of a ewe to rearrange a lamb that was not properly situated for the ewe to manage by herself. And I can definitely assure you I was in no way prepared to slide a 1/4" tube down the throat and into the stomach of a tiny, hours-old lamb in dire need of colostrum (a mother's first milk). 

But, I can say with incredible confidence, that to me one of the best parts of being a human being is that we do seem to be capable of more than we think we are – stepping up to it when someone (or something) is counting on us. It just seems to be built in to our DNA. Today, things I never pictured myself doing, are now no big deal. But, I can also say with the same certainty, that I had to dig deep down within to make myself do a few of the things required of a sheep farmer. I had to mentally work up to a few things – and that's okay too.

I suppose if I had had any children, it is a similar sense of responsibility. I've always just had animals to care for (as a workaholic at the time, I would have been a nightmare mother!) – but I suppose human nature kicks in when someone is in your care – albeit, human, dog, donkey – or sheep.

Here's a few of the more difficult, unexpected things a shepherd finds themselves dealing with:

  • Sheep poop. Call it scours, poop, diarrhea, dung, muck, turds. In the world of ruminants, there's a lot of it – and, I might add, it's everywhere. Some is gross, like the bright yellow gunk that a newborn lamb poops out after drinking the mother's very rich, early milk. Some poop is just basically a "grassy pellet" and looks like a small brown chocolate milk dud (a brand of candy we used to eat at the movies as teenagers). I've also learned that sheep shite loves to adhere to shoes and boots and it tracks splendidly into the house if you forget to hose it off! Soon enough you will get over it. It just comes with the title.
  • Administering medicine. For those of us that hate dentist or doctor visits – or, more likely the nurse portion of the visits, since they usually do the dirty work – using needles and syringes are pretty routine in the sheeping business. Vitamins, injectable antibiotic treatments, and worm doses all require a wee bit of medical prowess. I can't stand having my blood drawn or getting my annual flu shot. I pass out, weak in the knees and palms sweating. But, with the sheep, I got over it. Eventually. However, I will admit that I had to work up to all of it. At first, my wonderful neighbor handled the injections and dosing for me. But, after the first year, I set a personal goal to be able to manage the "intramuscular" injections by myself and let him still administer the "subcutaneous" (under the skin) treatments – which, thankfully, was not required that often.

    The following year, I managed the under-the-skin injections for the lambs (a tiny little needle), and here we are today, and I am able to manage the bigger needles under the skin with the ewes. Normally I would say, "you get used to it" – but it still creeps me out. I just deal with it.
  • Tube feeding a lamb is a big one. I avoided it like the plague for the first two years of lambing, again relying on experienced farmers to handle this for me. But, the alternative is to bottle feed a lamb, and that's not a great situation because my lambs got used to, and came to expect a bottle from me, and that has its own set of issues. Additionally, small lambs in trouble typically lose their "sucking" mechanism, and tube feeding becomes the only alternative to feed them. After a few really good YouTube videos and one or two training demonstrations by a farmer friend, I have learned the technique and if required, I can competently insert the tube and feed them. Does that mean I like to do it? Nope. Hate it. But sometimes it’s the only alternative.
  • Maggots. Yes, you read that right. Maggots. Quite possibly one of the grossest sheep experiences in my short tenure as a shepherd! High on the list of "prevention is way better than the treatment", maggots, or fly strike, is fairly common in Ireland due to the infamous Irish weather conditions. 

    Seasonally, the various farm organizations shout out warnings when the weather aligns with the breeding conditions for fly strike – the green bottle flies that lay eggs in the fleece that then become MAGGOTS. Nearly every June, we keep a sharp eye out for a ewe that has become seemingly "itchy" and separated away from the group. And If I see a sheep dashing randomly about with her head down as she is bitten on the hind end – a sure sign of potential strike – it’s time to get her in and face the music. Maggots are so gross, they require their very own chapter in sheep farming. Stay tuned.
  • Ear tagging. For some reason, the idea of squeezing the handles on a loaded ear tagger to pierce a 1/4" plastic tag tip through the ear of one of my sheep is high on my list of items that requires a bit of nerve. I suppose part of the problem is that as a kid we had our ears pierced with a needle stuck through our ears into a potato and it hurt plenty – and that needle was 1/100th the size of the plastic tag tip! Add in that I have lost a bit of the squeezing strength in my hands, firing off the tagger with enough power to properly connect to the back of the tag is somewhat problematic for me. So, for now, I ask a neighbor to assist with my annual ear tagging chores. This one will remain on the list of “what I need to work up to".

The world of sheeping has many wonderful sides to it, so obviously tolerating the items on this list are well worth it. And, I can honestly say, that as I discover the good, the bad, and the sad of husbandry, I do feel I grow a little bit more as a human. After a while, what was scary to attend to becomes no big deal. The hard things become easy. The smelly and disgusting become tolerable. 

Sheep farming is an amazing experience – all of it. I find myself suprised by just how much better it gets year after year. Needles. Poop. Maggots and all.