In the early years of the farm we had a wonderful neighbor named Don. He’d retired from dairying in the 90s, but he still planted a little corn, which he’d harvest late to ensure plenty of deer were around for hunting season, and in the summer he ran heifers on his huge, scrubby hill pasture. The barbed wire that ran around its endless perimeter had been patched and repaired piecemeal over the decades, but every couple months a few of the cows would slip out through a place where a fallen branch had made an opening or where the wire had rusted clear away, and when this happened Ed and I would help round them up.
But one year there was a bigger problem. In the fall, when it was time for the heifers to go home, one had somehow been left behind. Maybe it had wandered into the woods for a nap, or maybe it had been distracted by a particularly succulent patch of clover, but whatever the reason it had wandered far enough from the rest of the herd that when all the other cows came down for their morning visit to the barn — which this day led to them being loaded up trucked back to their home farm — it remained all alone up on the hill.
Soon Ed and I, along with Don’s brother Bob and a few other guys, were chasing it in circles, in one side of a thicket and out the other, up through the stand of hemlock, down towards the barn and back up again. For all the work there weren’t many signs of progress, so eventually we paused to regroup.
Don, driving his orange UTV, pulled up and killed the engine, then declared, “This is about the stupidest thing we’ve ever done.”
These words came to mind a few days ago when I found myself chasing a lone ram lamb through a tangle of bush honeysuckle. He scampered effortlessly along the low deer trails while I ducked and crawled and swore after him, able to see no more than a few yards ahead, getting ever farther from my farm, to which I was theoretically returning him, even as he inexorably headed in exactly the wrong direction.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, since that was near the midpoint of what in retrospect was a chain of remarkably dumb decisions, each interlocked with and contingent on the previous, so that when I look back I can see how every stupid choice hung on the previous and marvel that I managed to link so many failures one to the next.
When the saga began there were four groups of livestock: the cows alongside roughly fifty sheep moving to fresh grass daily, about thirty sheep doing brush patrol in an area that was pasture long ago and will be again, Iron Ram with his companion wether Lambo, and a group of eleven intact ram lambs. These last were too small a group to bother with rotational grazing this late in the year, so they were in our a big hill pasture (right next to Don’s hill pasture as it happens, though that is neither here nor there).
The morning before I was to find myself caught in a thicket I looked out the window, and through a rising fog of the sort that can take the sun several hours to burn off I spotted a lone lamb in the corner of the pasture, plaintively baaing at the ram and Lambo. Two fences separated them, but the lamb could see them, and with no other sheep around he was desperate for their company, as herd animals always are.
I was immediately concerned. First, for the reason I just mentioned — why would he be by himself? Why would he have left his little herd except under duress? Second, the night before I’d gone to hang out with my friend Oli, and as I stepped out my front door I’d heard the eerie yipping howls of a big pack of coyotes. They hadn’t been on my farm, but they hadn’t been too far away either. Not one sheep had ever been lost to a predator, but there’s a first terrible time for everything.
With my heart in my throat and farm dog Oban by my side I set out to through the dew-damp grass. Open pasture predominated in the paddock, but it also included a good section of forest, and when I didn’t find the lambs at the top of the hill I went along the bottom and then the top of the wooded ridge, hoping to spot them and fearing I’d come upon evidence of an attack.
Instead I found nothing, which was only the smallest bit better. No livestock like going through a properly made high tensile fence, but most are capable of it if they get worked up, sheep in particular due to their nimbleness and size. Unbidden images of slavering coyotes chasing my poor little flock of lambs right through the fence and into the outer dark of the nearby state forest filled my mind.
Here I made my first and smallest mistake. It hardly even qualifies, but I’ll include it because it might help you keep all the groups of animals straight as I tell this story, and because it set the template of the next few days. What I did was move the group of sheep on brush patrol in with the cows and the rest of the sheep flock, dropping my animal groups from four to three. I did this to get them out of the woods, which I was increasingly convinced must be stuffed to bursting with coyotes and to get them near the cows, which are much more intimidating to small canines than sheep alone.
It was just as I was finishing up all the herding over rough terrain and the rearrangement of portable electric wire and the catching up of the last few stragglers than I happened to look across the road. Through the thinning mist I saw the group of ram lambs grazing up on the hill in a scene of such absolute bucolic beauty that I would have smiled even if I didn’t have the immense relief of realizing that all my dark visions of predation had no basis in reality. It was also then that I noticed that the lone lamb who started this thing, the one that had been in the corner piteously calling out to the ram and Lambo, had somehow gotten to the wrong side of the fence.
Mistake number two is about to arrive, so I want to be clear about what I did wrong immediately before this. Combining the larger groups of sheep was fine, since it was slated to happen in the next couple days regardless. The mistake was my reasoning; I had told myself a story about coyotes and lambs and acted as if it was true without seriously considering the far more likely scenario that maybe I just hadn’t managed to locate a small group of small sheep in a thirty acre paddock on a fogged in morning.
Back to the loose ram lamb, from who two days of dumb problems were to follow: he stood right next to ram paddock, trying to see a way through the electric mesh fencing. I trotted over to him and immediately spotted the unlatched gate he’d pushed through. How it came to be unlatched I don’t know.
At this point I should have closed Iron Ram and Lambo in the pen that conveniently made up one end of their paddock, opened up the portable mesh fencing to let the lamb in, which he would have willingly done to be near them, set the mesh back up, released the ram and Lambo, and been content with that until I could get him back to his proper place. But this particular type of fencing — picture an electrified fishing net suspended between poles — is singularly obnoxious to work with, and I was in a hurry.
The only mitigating factor for what I did instead of this annoying but ultimately small task was a rapidly approaching appointment to have the first cavity of my life filled, which had me preoccupied. At any rate, I saw the gate he’d just snuck through, perhaps thirty feet from where he stood, and thought, “Wouldn’t it be a whole lot faster and easier if he just went back where he came from?”
So mistake number two was trying to force the lamb away from the ram and Lambo, when I know very well that the most important thing in any sheep’s life is being part of a herd, even just a herd of three. Nevertheless, I tried, repeatedly. But as a rule a sheep, especially an adolescent ram lamb who’s both feeling his oats and very worked up, is much faster and more agile than a person, and one sheep by itself moves less predictably than a flock.
The lamb went one way, then he went another. Though I know it’s alway best to walk when working with animals, to go as slowly and calmly as possible, he was having none of that. His only desire was to be in with the ram, until suddenly it wasn’t. Without warning he simply took off. I followed slowly, but for every step I took he took two. At this point I finally put the rams in the pen and opened up the temporary fence, just as I should have done at the outset. I could still see the fugitive lamb lurking on the periphery, so I figured he’d calm down and wander back if I gave him some time.
When I returned a couple hours later my face was numb and the lamb was nowhere to be seen. I drove up the farm road and back down without a sighting, then went inside. For the rest of the day I went out three or four times to search for him, but I saw not a single sign.
The next day, just as my son’s soccer game was wrapping up, I got a call from Oli, reporting that he’d spotted a lone sheep on the corner of my property, which he rightly assumed was mine. The strange thing was that it had somehow gotten to the far side of the farm, meaning it had either gone through several fences or walked in a huge loop. I have no way of knowing which, but I was about to find out just how willing to dive through fences this lamb had become, so I assume at some point he just decided finding other sheep was more important than worrying about a little electric shock.
I raced home and went out after him. In the thirty odd minutes since Oli spotted him he’d jumped into the pasture with the cows and sheep, though he was still about a hundred yards away from them, staring at them as if he wasn’t quite sure how to approach.
Through this piece I refer to this sheep as a lamb, which is technically accurate, but you shouldn’t be imagining a cute little thing the size of a shih tzu gamboling through the grass. This lamb was about ninety pounds and extremely fast. He was also old enough to breed, which I very much wanted to avoid. Sheep gestation is remarkably short, so an early October pregnancy would mean a late February or early March birth, which is far too wintery for safe lambing.
So as happy as I was that he’d come back inside a paddock, I really didn’t want him to go in with the ewes. I called Alanna and asked her to open a couple gates, thinking I’d be able to herd him back towards the other male sheep, and this was mistake number three, which you may have noticed was pretty much identical to mistake number two. That is, instead of just encouraging the ram lamb to go in with the other sheep, which is what he naturally wanted to do, I tried to get him to go somewhere different.
Which he did. But instead of going in the direction I wanted, he raced in a wide arc around me, leapt through a fence onto Bob’s freshly cut hayfield. After this the mistakes started stacking up pretty quick.
Mistake number four was continuing to try to herd him without getting Oban or another human to help, even though I had abundant evidence that I would get nowhere by myself.
Mistake number five was spending probably an hour following him in circles through the dense brush he wandered into when he got tired of the open field.
I then had a success! By patiently baaing (not to brag, but I’m pretty good at making sheep sounds) while slowly moving away I got him to start following me. We baaed back and forth as I meandered back towards my own farm, with me darting from bush to bush to keeping out of his sight, which was critical to sustaining the illusion that he’d happened upon another of his kind. By this method I eventually got him back into the brushy paddock that initially had the herd of thirty.
I then hooked up the trailer, loaded in Iron Ram and Lambo and took them to the same paddock, thinking they’d find the ram lamb, which turned out to be mistake number six, because the next morning they were out placidly grazing and he had not turned up.
Mistake seven was leading the ram and Lambo and Oban and my daughter’s cat Coco on a long stroll through the brushy paddock, a process that involved me making almost continuous sheep noises, rather than first checking to see if he’d found his way in with the ewes, which, of course, he had at some point in the night.
I took the leg crook and after maybe half an hour of patiently walking after the flock I managed to catch him. (This was not guaranteed to work. If it hadn’t and I’d ended up needing to take the whole flock into the handling pen it would have been mistake number eight.)
Anyhow, once I’d caught him by the leg I managed to heave him onto my shoulders, his back legs in my right hand, his front in my left. As I mentioned, this guy was no lightweight, but now that I had him in hand I wasn’t about put him down until he was back where he belonged. I staggered out to the driveway, across the bridge, up the road, and finally deposited him back through the gate he’d squeezed through two days before. I latched it securely behind him.
I am no longer a novice farmer. Years of experience has informed the way the farm is fenced and the way animals move through it. A lot of thought, experimentation, and tinkering has made the whole thing to a pretty smooth operation — animals usually go where they should when they should with minimal effort. It’s humbling to have a single lamb blow up the better part of three days.
So I take comfort in that memory of Don, who would have been in his early eighties at the time, a lifelong farmer who had seen everything from the advent of tractors to the boom and bust of the family dairy, shaking his head in resignation at the trouble just one loose animal can cause. Sometimes stupid things happen, and sometimes I do them.