What makes a shepherd? I was asked this recently - what is the difference between simply owning sheep and being a shepherd? For us, a key part of the answer is to know and understand your flock. This makes owning them much more enjoyable (who doesn't love a woolly cuddle) but essentially, for the flock, this is vital in maintaining their good health. And for us, this involves Daily Sheep Checks.
When you first arrive to the sheep, you immediately get a feel of the mood of the flock - whether they are relaxed, full, happy, nervous, or scared of something. A relaxed flock will be spread out fairly evenly over a wide area, heads down munching and many lying down "chewing the cud". They lift their heads in interest at our arrival, recognise us by our clothing and come over. It is always amusing how they stand off with something as simple as us wearing a different hat, until we speak and they know it's us from the voice.
We have just started to put a bit of hard feed out for the flock to help them stay in good condition as they approach lambing. We continue to tweak this depending on weather conditions, grass quality, and when we know how many lambs they are carrying. They also have a lick bucket to provide additional energy as well as necessary nutrients that are missing in the grass at this time of year.
The flock are currently on their winter grazing. This means they are on a neighbouring farm who run cattle on the grass throughout the summer. For the farmer, having sheep on the land over winter helps level the land and add fertiliser, and for our sheep it means getting them away from the risk of flooding on our low-lying land. It's a win-win.
Daily checks are the perfect opportunity to cast an eye over the flock and pick up anything out of the ordinary. As a prey animal, sheep hide any problems rather than appear the weak one in the flock, hence they have a reputation for dying suddenly - they seem to be either perfectly well, or dead! By spending a bit of time with them each day and knowing them, you can infact pick up many problems early before they become life-threatening.
We also count the flock whenever possible. I know this is not possible for all shepherds as many flocks are far larger than ours. However, we have long learnt that one missing always spells a problem. Two or three missing usually means a group of "naughties" have popped through a hole, or are simply grazing over a brow, but one missing means they are unable to be with the flock and the heart always sinks. Surprisingly often, a sheep is apart as they are physically stuck - a head caught through a fence or a fleece caught in thick brambles are a surprisingly common affair! Other times, they have collapsed and of course with lambs, it might be that they have been killed by a predator. Whatever the cause, daily checks have prevented many mortalities over the years.
We hope you enjoy the video, coming along with us on one of our daily checks and seeing the flock again. We will be scanning them to see what lambs they are carrying in a couple of weeks, and then of course we will once again be getting the barn ready, bringing the flock in, and beginning lambing, so look out for those!