Sheep are not stupid
…or thick, dense and unintelligent
…frustrating and exasperating, yes, though not through brainlessness; but because of survival and flock instinct.
My sheep are Whitefaced Dartmoors, or Widdicombes. They are one of England’s most ancient breeds, and are still confined to Dartmoor, being rarely found elsewhere. I’ve kept various sheep breeds over the course of my farming life but needed something exceptional to survive the extremely wet, difficult conditions that Locks Park threw at them. I settled on the Whiteface as not only did it meet these exacting criteria but had the bonus of delicious tasting lamb.
Sheep, did you know, recognize each other at a distance by voice, though at close quarters they rely largely on facial appearance: it is said that they remember the physical features of their flock members for up to two years. It’s fascinating to watch them when you reintroduce ewe hoggs (two-year olds) back into the flock to be tupped (mated by the ram). At first they seek out their mothers and other close family like aunts and grandmothers, but are later segregated – the older ewes dislike having teenagers around, sheep are quite ageist. As the hoggs’ first gestation progresses they are gradually reinstated back into their family groups. So you have a double bonding, to family members, and to the flock as a whole.
family group three hoggs grazing
Dot is my oldest sheep. She’s 10 or 11 years old, self sufficient and self reliant, showing her true hill breeding. Compact, showing no signs of sagging with age; she has excellent teeth and feet and, remarkably, still produces twins every year. She not only recognises all of her flock but all of my family too. Bring a stranger onto the land, and she is instantly suspicious.
Aloof to humans most of the year, as soon as I begin feeding my doubles (ewes that are having twins), Dot will change into the bravest sheep and be the first to knock the bucket with her head as I fill the trough. She even seems to know when her feet need trimming, keeping close by when I have the shears to hand. After lambing she hides her newborn young in a warm sheltered spot whilst she goes off to graze, returning to check and feed them every half hour. Funnily enough, though the most senior sheep, she has never taken to being a lead ewe, preferring a more independent existence. Why should she share the best grazing with anyone else?
Dot with twin lambs
My sheep are what’s called hefted or leared. Knowledge of the perimeter of our land is passed on from mother to daughter, along with the best eating, sleeping and watering spots. This trait is invaluable to moorland shepherds, where there may be no fences or walls for miles and flocks may otherwise stray and intermingle. Locks Park is not an unfenced moorland farm and has rented land away from the holding. When I first got the sheep I wondered how they would manage their hefting instinct. With no problem at all it seems. Loading sweetly and smoothly into the trailer that takes them to one parcel of land, even managing to take the correct lambs with them (this has to be done in a couple of journeys). Likewise when I want to move them to the River Meadows, a walk of over a mile, they march with single mindedness ignoring all irrelevant gates, openings and diversions.
They have managed to adapt and incorporate not only my rented land but also the method of arrival!
I’m off to do a bit more ‘wool-gathering’!