The recent storm gave an opportunity to accustom the sheep to staying in a more secure, but unfamiliar, shelter: under the house. Remembering their #1 rule: "Eat! ALOT!" (YarnTalk, chapter 3), I filled the white bucket with grain and they followed me single file to the house. Raising the lattice, we ducked under the porch floor and I set down a large trashcan lid as a tray and dumped in the grain. They gathered 'round, easily fitting under the 4-foot-high porch floor. Sheep like low roofs. I guess that's why sheep "folds" or "cotes" are built small. They feel more secure when all bunched together. But my efforts were in vain. They ate their fill and pushed their way past the lattice and out again to graze. They don't feel the rain unless it's hard on their faces. Wool insulates them against everything: rain, wind, heat,cold. Not like fur. During the storm, the dogs were also in and out, tracking water all over the floor. Their fur was always dripping. They were more curious about the storm and just wanted to make their rounds and check again. And again. The house is built for storms. When designing it, I was fascinated with old-style plans that accomodated the South's heat and humidity. Plans like breezeways, low eaves and wide overhangs, airy cupolas, and a whole-house fan. Windows,doors, and dogdoors are open almost year-round, allowing breezes (ok, winds) to blow through during the hot months. The dogs take advantage of this. It occurred to me I was mirroring my hurricane chapter in the book (YarnTalk, chapter 8). In the story, however, the sheep stayed put, even exploring, knocking about, or dragging around everything under the house: fallen insulation, tangled wiring, plumbing, stacks of pottery and garden tools. When the power cut out and the light dimmed, I switched my attention to crafts that didn't require electricity. I could hear them below the floor and they could hear me above, pounding away on the loom. Since storm gusts were not so severe, it was actually relaxing. Our mutual sounds kept us in touch with each other while outside, beyond the porch walls, the trees danced with the wind. YarnTalk is a work in progress, following the adventures of Ivy, the lamb, as she tries to learn about making a shawl. Occasional updates and excerpts are posted here.
Rule #1: Eat Food. Alot! ~ Rule#2: Stick With The Flock! ~ Rule#3: Be Aware! ~ Rule#4: Not To Close! ~ Rule #5: Play Games!
At about age 5-6 days to 2 weeks new
lambs suddenly get the memo that they can leave their moms and do something more athletic than reaching for the next meal. They see other lambs just like themselves and they start to play. This is when “gamboling” gets so funny. As though on a pogo stick, they bounce and twirl and hop across the pasture. From here through the next several weeks they spend much of their time in the air.
Once I filmed a lamb spinning in a twirl. He stood in one place, as though not knowing what to do, then leaped straight up, whirled, bounced down and up again, and repeated the move
3 times. Then he took off running, snapping kinetic energy between himself and the next lamb to keep them all bouncing. When they get older the energy passes, but even on a crisp autumn day, usually at sunset after a long day of napping and chewing cud, I’ve seen the whole flock gamboling, skipping, running around the pasture in a game of tag. Even a 150 lb. ram, once relieved of his fleece at shearing time, becomes like a kid again and bounces back and forth across the pasture in a spurt of freedom.
Another game sheep like is King-Of-The-Mountain. Usually mom is the mountain. This could be inspired by a large woodpile, a mound of high ground, or any older sheep who’ll lie still for the game. And this is why commercial growers may use lightweight jackets ( fleece protectors) on their sheep. The lambs don’t care. They bounce up, knock off the current “king”, then are butted in a flying leap from the next lamb. The ewes just chew their cud. It must be very meditative for them.
There was also the time before my flock was established, when my 1st ram lamb created a new game. Having only his ewe cousin to play with, he looked around for anything to break his boredom. He started knocking down trees. Small saplings, but still 8-10 ft.high with thick bases. He’d butt them, bend them by walking over them, and ram them into the ground. They’d snap back and he’d butt them again. And again. I was going to get him a volley ball on a rope, but it never happened.
Most sheep lead simple lives and usually don’t have to worry about their next meal, a strong fence, or what the shepherd’s up to. So they play. Looks like a good idea to me.
Rule #1: Eat Food. Alot! ~ Rule#2: Stick With The Flock! ~ Rule#3: Be Aware! ~ Rule#4: Not To Close! ~ Rule #5: Play Games!
“Us vs. them” is something sheep understand too well. The family tribe is strong and anyone else -keep out of their personal space. But I think this rule depends on upbringing. And character.
Even though they may come running to my call, (only the “shepherd’s call” – anyone else can forget it.) they have an amusing sense of boundaries when they stop short of my reach. I could stretch out my hand and they will back away, just out of reach. I can almost hear them saying, ” uh uh uh… not too close.” If I take a step forward, they take a step backward. But if I step backward, they take one step forward. A game of “Simon Sez” anyone? In the next photo, it may seem like we’re on friendly terms, but they were just out of reach. When I leaned forward, they stepped back. No amount of coaxing would change this.
The exception to this is if I have grain, for which Rule #1 takes precedence.
Re: upbringing, bottlebabies are understandably different, rushing to the bottle person whether you have it or not. They will never let you forget it. So, when grown, they still have that familiarity and are more willing to be within close range. This may or not mean close enough to touch, just whatever range they decide is right.
My first ewe and ram lambs came from a plantation that had fairly good contact with their sheep. I walked into a darkened barn and unknowingly, the ram followed me in. I should never have turned my back or been near him at all, but what actually happened was a fluke. He came up behind me and stuck his head under my arm and wanted to be petted. He was young; I was naive. I thought it would last. So I took home a couple of his lambs and tried to make friends. They only wanted to run away. Unless I had grain. But in the end, those two lambs started my family of sheep to continue for the next 35 years. Some were more friendly than others, some were more bossy. Some were outright wild. All were real “characters”.
In the YarnTalk story, I’ve sprinkled little sign posts about “the rules” throughout. Each character is reminded about a r
ule depending on what’s going on at the time. Of course, SnoBelle ignores the reminders, but she’ll use them in her own way.
At right is Panda. Look in his eye; he’ll stare you down. I wouldn’t want to get close to him either.
Besides a natural telepathy with each other, their senses are acute. Especially scent. Especially for food. Grain is the main draw, anytime, but hay must be fresh. If it’s fallen onto the ground and they step on it, well then … no longer edible. It smells like sheep feet and they ignore it. If mimosa is cut on the far side of the pasture, they know it and come running. If grain is hidden in a closed bag where they might find access to it, they will find it. Immediately! Such as the time Ivy entered an unfamiliar classroom with me, and no sooner through the door, whipped the leash out of my hand and charged for the hamster grain at the back of the room, chowing down before I could reach her.
Other senses are just as strong. Sound carries all around from the neighbors’ dogs or an overhead plane to my call from two acres away. All make their ears twitch and their heads turn. An amazing example is when the shearer comes, who rumbles down the dirt road in a cloud of dust, in an old pick-up. This man appears only once per year, with a definitive engine sound the sheep remember. At his approach from almost a quarter mile away, I’ve seen their heads jerk up, all eyes turn as one, and all focus together towards the road. They know who it is! And what’s coming. And they don’t like it.
Sight might not be at the top of the list, but they are very sensitive to movement. In the distance, if an unclear object moves within their near vicinity, such as another animal approaching through tall moving grasses, or a bird who flies overhead, ears will twitch, eyes will turn, all as one. Colors are not the same as ours and studies have shown a limited range – mostly in the reddish/yellowish shades. My previous dog – large and red, could jump the fence into their pasture. In the YarnTalk stories, since the sheep did not know his name, they imagined he was called “Big Arf”. Big Arf usually ignored the sheep and would explore the far corners of the pasture, stick his nose deep into old woodpiles, and bury his bones in forgotten holes under the trees. Wherever he moved, the sheep’s eyes and ears and noses would follow, raising their heads as one, pointing in his direction like a weathervane. Whenever I looked for him, I looked at them pointing the way. I called them the “Arfvane”.
Sheep have no natural defenses and must stay on top of their game to deal with predators. Their only shield is to run away, or hide. Even rams, protector of the flock, are no match for a dog, or coyote, or an angry snake. Their main “defense” is a good fence. But being hyper-aware is something to be proud of.
Rule #2: STICK WITH THE FLOCK! Always!
Sheep are flock animals and have close family ties. Mothers and kids will hangout together, in all activities, in all venues, forever. They may slightly separate themselves from other family groups, but always within eyesight. When one responds to something, they all do. Their telepathy is strong, except when one zones out in her own little dream world and takes a few minutes to catch up. Ivy is one of those. When she grazes, I think the action of stepping and chewing, stepping and chewing must be very meditative. Being independent and curious, she will also venture off for a solitary nap, or explorations deeper under the trees. I sometimes call and call when ready to move them to an alternate spot and though the others come running, I often need to search for Ivy, who’s off pawing some new plant she found, distant from the flock, or asleep in a hole, behind the fallen tree, down in the woods, so completely out of sight I might step on her before she wakes.
One exception to the flock rule may be when young lambs are sleeping. They play hard, then drop and take a nap. The ewes keep grazing and gradually widen the spaces between them. Often, one ewe plays babysitter, while the other moms drift away. Then they meet up and switch roles. Other times, they all drift away and forget where they left the lambs. That’s cause for all-out shouting until the lambs wake up and they all find each other again.
But this brings up pecking orders. Even though they stick together and mimic each other, there is a separation of power and who gets to go first. Did you know the ram is not the leader of the flock? His job is to protect and bully and make little lambs. If danger threatens, he’ll face it and even though he’s no match for most predators, he’ll make a big show of it. Mostly with other rams. I personally think they’re not all that brave. They wait ’til you turn your back, then they butt you.
It’s the Head Ewe who leads the flock, decides where the best pasture is, who eats first, and who steps ahead of the line of ewes and lambs all in single file to their next location. With my small family of sheep, it’s Swee’Pea who answers my call first, leads the stampede to breakfast, and yells when the flock needs something. Swee’Pea is the daughter of the original SnoBelle from the story, and also Ivy’s mom. Though always part of the flock, their independence runs deep.
In YarnTalk, my story of the lambs and the fiber processes, Maa Dixie Belle gives 5 rules for the flock. No. 1 is “Eat Food! Alot!”
The others I’ve deduced from watching them, usually based on how they sense their world around them. The other rules are:
2. Stick with the flock!
3. Be aware!
4. Not too close!
5. Play Games!
More on those later.
#1 – EAT! seems to be written in capital letters, just for them. They’re always hungry. Though many sheep will live off forage entirely, to me, a barren winter pasture should have some help. My sheep are wool sheep and if they’re going to have quality wool, they need a high protein grain. So they have become accustomed to breakfast as soon as I wake up. That’s “as soon as I wake up”. Not after I’m audibly moving around, or visibly on my way to the shed. That’s from the moment I wake up, they know it. And they start yelling for breakfast. And when I appear, they stampede to the trough.
Sheep are creatures of habit , following the same pattern, over and over. For instance, when lining up at the trough for any meal, they must approach in the same order, position themselves in “their” spot, and dive in. “Diving in” is important, hence their No.1 rule. Maybe I should call it “Eat Food. Alot! NOW!” It doesn’t matter if they just had breakfast and meandered away from the shed, following the same path in the same order. If you call them again, they will stampede over and repeat the same exact pattern again, as though the first meal never happened.
Beyond their usual grain, they also like candy. Err…mimosa. For some reason my sheep have developed a big attachment to chewing these large fronds of greenery that I’ve never seen with other sheep. And they’ve passed it down through the generations, as long as I’ve been here. They may be skittish and aloof apart from coming for their meals, but if I go out to the pasture and pull down a mimosa branch, they come running. Or stampeding. When clearing debris around the yard, they know if mimosa is involved and rush at the fence, baaing and demanding their share.
They have curious tastes. It’s a sheep thing.
It’s blueberry season! A great time for dyeing yarns.
How does this work? In my case, a bit randomly.
It’s a little misleading, tho, to think that blueberries
equate to blue dye, unless it’s on your tongue. More like
violet or a mauvey lavender.
I did a few skeins and ended up with varied results. I’m
definitely not an expert and would rather experiment
freely than follow a formula. But I think I used too much
vinegar because the shades I got were darker, rather than
bluish. Wool is a protein fiber and requires an acid dye
bath. (In contrast, cotton needs an alkaline dye bath.)
Since mine were not so clear, I overdyed a couple with a
fiber-reactive blue. In the photo, those are the darker
You can try this easily yourself, but natural dyes also
require a “mordant” – a chemical to make it stick. These
are various minerals (chrome, copper, tin) and are usually
toxic and used in minute doses. But the simplest is alum,
available at the supermarket.
My yarns pick up some “debris” from the berries, but
after drying and brushing, they retain the natural softness
of the Shetland sheep. Mixing varied shades and textures
gives a more interesting weave. Or knit or crochet item. Try
it; it’s fun.
Ivy, the lamb, has found a place in my classroom demos. Since I’m a fiber artist, I often introduce myself by way of loading up all the weaving equipment and taking it to show students what I do. Starting with raw wool, it’s processed through carding, dyeing, spinning, and weaving. Often, the kids get hands-on experience by trying the loom and petting and feeding Ivy. Touching her wool, which is soft with natural lanolin, is a perfect way to present “texture”, one of my key concepts in many of the art activities.
Awhile back I started writing about the fiber process
from the sheep’s perspective. Do they wonder why their wool is taken and what happens to it? At the time, SnoBelle, a real lamb, inspired the first chapters of YarnTalk. SnoBelle got her name because she was born in a dark woods late in the night, and in the process of helping her mother, I could hardly see beyond black trees and thick black undergrowth . But the flashlight picked out the new lamb, which shown wet and bright in the darkness, white as snow. From the start, SnoBelle was an adventurer. She grew up to become Ivy’s grandmother.
Ivy is not fond of traveling, but once we arrive at our destination, she’s all for exploring and visiting with anyone who offers her a handout.I didn’t always have a lamb available that was small enough to fit in the car, or friendly or cooperative enough for visits. Ivy, actually two-yrs. old now, turned out to be a dwarf, and a bottlebaby. A neighbor helped feed her, familiarizing her with strangers and many dogs. At school, I give each student a small handful of grain, so that Ivy will go to each one as they sit in a circle and eat out of their hand. It tickles and the kids laugh. (It seems sheep will do anything for grain. Walking into one new classroom, she once made a beeline for the empty hamster cage, and devoured the leftover grain before I could pull her away. ) Hence the sheep’s #1 rule in the stories: “EAT food! ALOT.” Surprising even to me, Ivy follows on a leash and I found that while I’m talking to the class, she doesn’t need to be held and will just hang around and watch. See her in the photo, behind the spinning wheel. Most of our trips are an hour or two visiting a single class, but at one school, she was “on the job” the entire day, interacting with several classes while 200 kids waited in line to pet her. Ivy is a trooper and just as curious and independent as SnoBelle is in the stories.
For school visits, camps or private groups/birthdays, if you’re in the Tally area and would like a visit from Ivy, contact me for more info. You may also see more photos and art activities listed on my pages, “YarnTalk“, “School Presentations“, and “Dyed ‘N Wool Art Activities“.
The shearing this year went smoothly, at least for me. However, the girls had to be moved to another farm a day early, since I couldn’t be with them during shearing, I heard later they were not so easy to deal with. Having had the pleasure of a large grassy yard overnight, they did not want to be herded in for their haircuts the next day. Apparently they scattered every which way and drew out the procedure much longer than it should have been. Sheep do not like being sheared, but they do like having been sheared. Dropping several pounds of wool on a hot day makes them zip and gambol around like lambs. When I got them back, they were clean and cool, and much happier. Below are some of my favorite pics from years past.
Swee’Pea, as “cotton candy”.
The sheep are Shetland crosses, which means they have the long fine texture of Shetlands, but I think are not as fuzzy. Because of the crosses through the years, their wool is much softer.
MissyMoon has a mix of black and white wool. Most is white, long and luscious fibers.
Several years ago the shearer arrived late and in the dark, he spooked a new lamb that was only a few weeks old. During the shearing of his mom, the totally freaked-out lamb ran in circles, baa’ing loudly for his mom, wondering what in the world was going on. The photo below is totally different. Ivy is very independent, curious, and got right in their under the shearer to watch her mom’s shearing. I think she liked it.
Ivy watches the shearing
In the end, lustrous fibers are gathered into bundles for processing. Wool needs washed, combed or carded, spun, dyed, and used as many textured yarns in so many things. This pic shows length of the raw wool staples, color, and softness of the finished yarn.