We’ve kept sheep since we moved here in 2001. Our first starter flock of 10 stayed with us through foot and mouth disease. We’ve added and bred ever since, selling the lamb to family and friends. Now we have a mixed flock of about 45 Welsh crosses, Jacobs and Jacob crosses. We bought our first Jacobs in 2001 and, thrown in as a freebie, was Old Ewe. Too old even then to have a commercial value, she was given away so that her old owners could avoid The Difficult Decision about what you do with a pet sheep when it’s old.
In the last ten years, she has been the leader ewe. Some call these the ‘Judas Sheep’ because they will lead the flock into whatever the farmer intends for them. For us, she has been a trusty helper, coming as soon as she’s called and leading the flock between fields or into the yard for their treatments.
Now she is really on her last legs and we found her down in hedge this week. She must be 17 or 18. We’ve brought her into the barn to munch on some cubes and then we’ll have to despatch her humanely so that she doesn’t die a slow death. Very sad – but it is the right thing to do when you have livestock.
Meanwhile, I’ve just been moving the rest of the flock to a fresh field with actual green spring grass. As I went up to call them, I wondered whether they’d come without Old Ewe and who – if any – would take up leadership. To my surprise, the ewe we call Katy Mama was first to the gate and nuzzling my hand.
Katy Mama was born as we moved here, so she’s ten now – old in sheep years. She’s a pretty little thing but she has been a bit feisty over the years. Very aware of what’s going on around her – and first to run off and last to come – she has also been a fantastic, protective mother to all her lambs. She has often been seen on lamb-sitting duty in the Spring evenings when all the lambs gather to play ‘king of the castle’ on the muck heap.
The flock gathered behind her and I swear she looked at me square in the eyes as if to say “I’m in charge now.” As she led the flock up the track to the Quarry fields I couldn’t help but marvel a little at how the flock ‘eco-system’ works – how leadership – and ‘followership’ – just got renegotiated amongst them and what sheep-y leadership qualities seem to matter to them.
And how, in truth, I also found myself slotting in to my place within it, in partnership with her authority, strolling along behind them, shooshing the stragglers and shutting gates….