Saturday, May 12, 2007

Sheep talk and ticks

"Family is very important to sheep."

Some people laugh at me when I say that, others accuse me of being anthropomorphic, most just nod their heads.

But it is true! And I'm not the only one who has noticed. I think most any shepherd will tell you the same thing. This phenomenon is noted enough that researchers have studied "visual recognition in sheep." They could have just asked a shepherd or gone and spent a year living with a flock of sheep.

I spend lots of time with my sheep and I watch how they behave and interact. the picture at the left is Marjoram, comforting her yearling daughter who just went through her first shearing. Button seemed very confused by being naked, she acted like she was just going to huddle under the tree and die of embarrassment - but with her mother's gentle coaxing, she was up grazing with the flock in about an hour. (Sometimes I even think I'm being anthropomorphic!)

I first noticed the strong family bonds when we began separating the first time ewes from the older ewes for lambing. This way we could keep a closer eye on the first timers and give them feed that they didn't have to fight for. After everybody had their lambs and all the sheep were doing well, we put the two flocks back together.
I watched Licorice greet her yearling daughter Ogre and the two of them sniffed and burbled over each other's new lambs. Marj's twin yearling daughters ran right to her and she let her new twins sniff their older sisters and as all 4 new lambs toddled around.

In the move to Foxbriar, several families of sheep moved together. Because we could not take the whole flock, several of the ewes moved to Arkansas without their mother's or daughter's. The sheep that moved here with their family seemed to settle in better, quiet down quicker and loose less weight.

But, as much as I have been worrying about the sheep's health, shearing them was enlightening. They are very healthy, the fleeces are strong, their parasite loads are way low, and they are fat (oops). They are due to start lambing this Tuesday - so I would rather have them on the little too heavy side than too thin.

The most interesting thing though, is, the sheep don't have ticks!

The ticks are terrible this year. The locals say they haven't ever seen them this bad. Some of the people who've moved here are wondering if they will let a little bug chase them off the mountain. We routinely pick between 6 and 20 off of each human every night, and that's not counting the ones we burn during the day. The goats are covered with them, I pulled more than a dozen out of one of Erie's armpits and 3 off of Beth's eyelids (YUCK). The dogs and the horses get their biweekly dose of One Spot and seem to do ok.

But the sheep - the sheep who have been on the farm for 6 weeks now, without any one checking them over for ticks - have about 20 dead ticks (and one live one on Coriander's ear) throughout the whole flock! I find more than that on one goat's udder at each milking!

Is it the wool? I'll check them over the next few days now that they are naked and see if they start picking up the little buggers. Until then, since even I can't imagine wearing wool in the summer in Arkansas, I am going to scatter the "trash wool", dung tags, ruffs, belly wool and some leg wool on the ground all around our camper, Midas.

Is it the lanolin? Maybe. The ticks that I did find on the sheep were dried, shriveled, mummified and covered in lanolin. If that's it, maybe I could make a lanolin tick repellent?

Is it the sheep smell? Sheep do have a distinct odor and they tend to sweat a lot, especially when they are nervous. Maybe ticks just don't find that appetizing?

Is it because we cleared the briar out of their pen and they don't wander the woods like the goats? Maybe, but I can get 6 ticks up my pants leg just walking from the camper to the barn and that is bare dirt anymore.

I'll let you know what I find with the ticks and sheep. Perhaps we can figure out a way to keep the bugs from winning!

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