All across the country there is a silent (mostly) struggle going on between many a shepherd and their sheep. Especially those shepherds who keep multiple rams in hopes of having some choice in which bloodlines co-mingle to produce that perfect lamb in the spring.
It's another season on the sheep farm. Smallholders like myself have the added disadvantage of not having enough distance between the rams or various breeding groups, and sometimes that causes big problems. One of the joys I have found in blog-land is following a group of people that are in the same sometimes sinking boat as myself. Right now, breeding groups are either being put together or taken apart, or some rotten ram has gotten in where he isn't suppose to on most of the Shetland blogs I read.
Putting rams back into the ram flock is always fraught with drama and angst--mostly on the part of the shepherd. There is the potential for injury or death to the rams, and the shepherd tries to cover all the bases to prevent such from happening. The rams will be okay in a few days, once they get their flock order once again settled. A larger ram flock seems to have fewer problems with hierarchy and in fighting. It's always amusing when a ram has 'finished his job' with the ewes and starts pining to rejoin his rowdy ram buddies.
There are many tricks that shepherd's use to ease the re-introduction of the rams. Crowding them all into a very small area without food or water for a day is one. This way the rams can't ram each other or do any serious side-swiping, and they get used to their buddies smell again. When they are released they have eating more than fighting on their testosterone shriveled brains. Putting several rams in a smaller area with hay bales or tires to slow down any ramming is also used. Really smelly, cheap perfume can be used in an attempt to confuse the rams and eliminate 'ewe' smell --both ends are sprayed. Vick's Vapo rub is another alternative. I'm pretty sure there are few things more awful smelling than a rancid rammy smelling ram wearing cheap perfume.
Of course one of the big things during breeding season, as I mentioned, is keeping the rams in their own pastures and not off visiting 'dry' ewes or another ram's breeding group. Especially towards the end of breeding season the rams get restless and want to visit around. Lest you think they are the only problem though, I have one word for you--ewes. They usually aren't quite as bad, but they are pretty shameless and will stand glued in a corner, eyeing a potential suitor across the way. They bellow and they wag their tails and I have no doubt if they could find a way out they'd be off in a heartbeat to join the ram.
Here at Fairlight, I have several rams. I have an old Merino ram named Blue who lives with his wethered son, Lanny. I haven't used Blue for several years, but that hasn't stopped him in the past from pacing a path along the fence line as he fervently wished to be with the ewes--even if they only came to his kneecaps. However this year, something surprising happened. Blue shares a fence line with the ewes and last year I had to put up a double fence, with a no-ram's land in-between. I did this because the year before he pushed over the fence and joined the ewes, which caused a trip to the vet for a 'morning after shot' for one ewe, and, well, that is another story. Blue has never been a fence destroyer though, unlike the Shetland rams. The fence pushing over incident was more my fault for not checking to make sure the panels were securely wired. Anyway, back to this year and the surprise. Blue has absolutely no interest in the ewes. Mind you he still shares a fence with them, but he is oblivious to their charms. Likewise the ewes don't even bother to try to entice him. In effect he has become a wether. I'm guessing that he is just not producing the hormones anymore. He will soon be nine years old, and for a merino ram that is probably a pretty ancient age.
In addition to Blue, I have Jackdaw the ram lamb from this year. Jackie will be headed off to his new home though after breeding season, so no re-introduction worries here at least. (Jackie and Selena left last weekend!)
Then there is Jeff. Jeff lives with his twin brother, Callum. Callum was a ram until he was about two years old. Then Cal made several mistakes all in a row. 1) He virtually tried to kill the ewe he was put with. 2) he took down an entire section of fence in a very short time. 3) he wouldn't stay in his pen, demolishing or damaging several more gates and fences and 4) he tried to take me down. Number four sealed the deal and he had a visit from the vet. Shortly after wethering Cal and Jeff tore through a fence to be reunited and then a few days later, Jeff beat the bejebbers out of Cal and nearly killed him. That is another story for another time, but the recovery was long. However except for that summer and breeding seasons the boys have always been together.
For awhile I had three rams and a wether in the Shetland pen, but the drama was tiring and I eventually sold two of the rams. Now re-introductions consists of just putting Jeff and his brother back together. Since rams are usually very wired and over the top aggressive during breeding season, I have to put the shield on Jeff before putting him with Cal in order to keep injury potential to a minimum.
The principle idea of the shield is that it keeps the rams from seeing forward, so in theory they can't ram each other. They can still tussle and side swipe, but not the terrible ramming with their heads. The shield itself is basically a halter, with a large piece of leather across the face and eyes. They can see out of the side of the shield so they can move around, graze and do normal sheep stuff--even run pretty fast.
They can also still pry fences up with their horns, although it slows them down , and they can still function as a breeding ram. Some shepherds put them on the rams to keep themselves safer during this season.
There is always a chance they might get caught up on something, so it is a worrying time. Jeff has a very small, but very broad head, so while the buckles and straps all fit, the shield was too short and both eyes peered around the edges. Pretty useless that way and it caused a big almost disaster once involving another ram, a cattle panel and myself, when I didn't realize he had outgrown it! My solution is to use duct tape and two leather patches to extend the shield out in front of the eyes. The shield does not touch his eyes at all.
I plan to take Jeff's off in just a few days as he has calmed down quite a bit already. My biggest worry now, is, will he stay where he is suppose to? Is breeding season over in his mind?
Update--ram shield came off this weekend, just in time for a nasty weather system to roll through. Click here to see a picture of the ram shield in it's original state. They are available for large and small rams, as well as horned and polled.