The Taming of the Sheep

(Hand-Feeding Iona)

Iona and Inga, our twin Shetland sheep are beginning to settle in nicely on the homestead. They are yearlings that come from good stock. They are already registered with the North American Shetland Sheepbreeders Association, of which I have recently become a member. It is interesting to note, that Vermont was the first state to import Shetland sheep to America and they really thrive in this climate – being similar to Northern Europe where their roots are. Mine too, funny that.

When we decided to add sheep to our list of animals it was for wool and also milk (meat too, since with milk comes meat). After getting to know Iona and Inga a bit better, I am beginning to doubt that I will ever milk these girls. They grew up in a small flock, and although they were well cared for, they weren’t “tamed” before they came to us.

Since their arrival, I have been working with them a few times a week. Bribing them with bits of grain, I make them eat from my hand. If Roberto and I are working together, one will feed and the other will scratch their necks or pet their heads. I also shake the grain can and walk back and forth in their pen, crying “sheep! sheep! sheep! sheeeep!” so they learn to follow me – in case they ever escape pen or pasture. They are getting the hang of it, but quickly become disinterested (in much less time than it would take me to lure them back after an escape). So still more practice with that is necessary.

(Hand-Feeding Iona and Inga)

The first few days that they were here, we kept them in the barn, and they seemed to warm up to us quickly, letting us pet them and coming to the door when they heard our footsteps or voices. So we thought it would be easy. But once they went into their large outdoor “winter pen” (they will be grazing pasture for the summer and part of the fall in their “summer home”), they seem more “wild” and wary of us.

I think I am starting to see why breeders often bottle feed their ruminants, even if they are drinking mother’s milk. Astrid and Claire, our goats follow us around like dogs – perfect illustration of that point. They are stubborn as hell, but are easily bribed with grain. I never have to worry about them wandering off while we are in the vicinity because they want to be near us.

(Jenn w/ newborn lamb on Navajo Reservation – 1998)

Iona and Inga by contrast definitely still see us only as predators and I am not sure if that is something I can change entirely – sheep and goats are very different from each other. But I am working on it. When I lived on the Navajo Reservation I actually herded sheep and there was at least 100 head in that flock – it was mixed sheep and goats and they pretty much knew what to do, because they were used to the routine. It was easy. But they were also born into that routine as well. So they grew up from day 1 following the rest of the flock. So I am not sure how “tame” Iona and Inga will become. However I have hopes that their progeny, if bottle fed might be different.

Do any of you out there who have sheep have other tried and true ideas on how to tame them, or get them more used to their handlers?

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30 Responses to The Taming of the Sheep

  1. Coco Cooks says:

    I love what you are doing. Cant wait to see the cheeses you will make from the milk ( if it happens ;-)

  2. Madrona Bourdeau says:

    Well I raised sheep many years ago and find them so lovely, but a bit shy . I think patience is your best key.
    I wanted to tell you about a book that was my bible. It was written by city people who bought land and got sheep. It has GREAT tips and lots of things to keep you laughing. Its called “Sheep Book: Handbook For The Modern Shepherd, Revised & Updated by Ronald B. Parker and Garrison Keillor ” My favorite and quite helpful!
    I wish you happy shepherding…and happing spinning and what ever you are planning on doing with the wool.
    Madrona (friedn of Erin)

    • admin says:

      Thank you so much for the book recommendation! I will definitely check it out! As for the wool – yes, I want to have a hand at spinning, and felting – maybe knitting one day, in my free time! :)

  3. Rochelle says:

    I haven’t ever tamed sheep but I would think that hand feeding would be the way to go. It works with timid cats and dogs so I’d assume (which one shouldn’t do but it happens) that it would work with sheep. Good luck and make sure to let us know how it works, as we are hoping to get a sheep and a goat when we have the chance to move out of the city in a few years :)

  4. Dana says:

    When I started farming, I got two boys from a local farmer who hadn’t really handled them at all, nor any of her flock of mixed wool and meat breed sheep. They were a few months old and only just weaned–and skittish beyond belief. By the time they were butchered at a year and a half, they were like dogs–following you, even going running with me, stubborn and annoying sometimes, but would also just sit beside you in the grass to snuggle for ages. In fact, if it weren’t for divorce, I would have kept them to breed a sustainable flock of my own, they had such good temperaments for rams.

    It may have helped that they were the only herd animals on the property so they had no one else to bond to instead, but basically I just handled them every day–touching, grooming, talking, and yes, hand feeding “snacks” of things I’d picked in the field for them, greens from my CSA box, fruit, or even on occasion oats. I’d already had a lot of experience moving quietly to not spook horses and taming feral kittens growing up. Also, I had three herding dogs who they were forced from day one to get used to being around and while only one of them was ever at all interested in herding them, it may also have helped them look to me as a “leader” or protector the way herd animals such as horses are looking for leadership in a herdmate (or human) to help them feel secure. Good luck and keep at it! =)

    • admin says:

      Oh Dana – they wound like such sweeties, it must have been hard to give them up. So far the sheep and goats haven’t spent much time together. Ideally they will be living together, but for now, just supervised visits, as the goats are still so much smaller than them (not for long, LOL!). I guess it just takes time…Thanks!

  5. Kym says:

    I never have worked with sheep, but one of the goats we had when I was a teen was very shy and afraid of people. And, of course, a milker. It often was quite a job getting her onto the milking stand and she couldn’t be tied on it or she’d freak about that, so food was the motivator. She only got grain on the stand, I then had exactly as much time as it took her to eat that to milk her.

    I wonder if anyone has a “sheep whisperer” program out there. ~;) If not, maybe some of the Natural Horsemanship ideas could translate, with the idea, as mentioned above, of establishing yourself as herd leader. I have no idea what sheep “society” is like, however. Actually, that might be something interesting to learn.

    • admin says:

      You must have been a fast milker Kym! :) Sheep Whisperer – I like it – there is a dog, chicken and horse one, so why not sheep? Maybe I should work my way to become it. LOL

  6. Jenn…they are SOOOO adorable!

  7. I did get to finally meet them first hand. So fun. They were definitely skiddish when I tried to pet them, but they were quite content to eat from my hand. ha ha.

  8. Jenny says:

    Hi! I L-O-V-E your new Shetlands! Continue with all the TLC and you will calm them down, but not completely. Hint: They love to be scratched on the chest between the front legs…heaven! :) I also have a bottle baby (Reese) who was raised with my goats. She’s very easy to handle, but if she has a mind to, she can be difficult, insists on having it her way. lol I love ‘em all!

    I handle the lambs daily, but don’t bottle feed them. BTW, don’t get too friendly with a ram, or he won’t ‘respect’ you and at breeding season, well, let’s say, never turn your back!

    Best wishes!

  9. Jenny says:

    Oh ya…there’s probably ‘better’ breeds for milking sheep/cheese making, as far as volume goes, but, I love/adore my Shetlands and rely on my dairy goats for milk. Good luck and welcome to the sheepy world!

    • admin says:

      Hi Jenny! Thanks for your comments! :) I love them too – they are so beautiful and even though they are skittish, I do like their personalities. Thanks for the hint about the scratching place! I will try that next time!I am sure that there are better sheep for milking, but I like the fact that Shetlands are more hardy in general…so I will do what I can! Oh and no rams for us, at least not yet!

  10. Dana says:

    Just read this post by Gene Logsdon this morning and thought you might enjoy it: http://thecontraryfarmer.wordpress.com/2011/05/16/the-gentle-approach-to-animals-saves-time-and-money/#more-4537

    • admin says:

      Thanks Dana – I guess it echoes my thoughts that I may never be able to “tame” these girls in the same way I have been able to tame the goats who we bottlefed and raised from babies.

  11. Georgia says:

    You’ll be fine, just keep at it. We were lucky that we got ours young (when I was a “kid”). But, like everyone else says, hand feeding, treats (I think ours liked apples?), and attention. Don’t give up, you haven’t had them that long!

    • admin says:

      Thanks Georgia! We have had a lot of improvement over the last week, and especially today – just about to post about it! :) I will have to try the apples though! And I have often wondered if sheep can enjoy horse treats?

  12. Michelle says:

    It’s amazing to me how quickly you are learning about your new charges. It’s a full time job learning the ropes of animal husbandry for so many species! Wow, and you have Soooo much spare time in which to do this! Oh, btw, love that hoodie!

    • admin says:

      Yeah, right! LOL. But it is a labor of love to be sure. It is the best parts of my day! Hee hee – yep, one of my fav hoodies! :P

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  14. Farmer Jessie says:

    Hello! I stumbled across your website when I googled tips for taming sheep! I had two very lovable, but incredibly naughty, loud, and stubborn, Nigerian Dwarf goats who proved to be such great escape artists that I needed to send them to a new farm. We have a 1.2 acre lot in Hawaii (a constant grass growing environment!) and are up to our ears in grass. So I set up an electric fast fence and adopted a mother Mouflan/Barbado mix Sheep and her 3 week old lamb (I named the mama Llama and the lamb Dolly) this past Saturday. It’s only been 3 days, but I’ve noticed sheep are VERY different than goats. First, they don’t have that giant personality goats have. But they respect the fence and do not challenge the electric netting unlike the goats! They are WAY more skiddish and terrified of me than my goats were, but they don’t make a peep (my goats sounded like children screaming bloody murder). Every day, I rattle a plastic tupperware of Sweet Feed. They won’t come to me and eat from my hand, but I can get about 6 feet away from them and I can see they are sniffing the sweet feed in the air. I then walk away and put the sweet feed by their water and salt lick and the go eat it after I leave the pen. I’m hoping they tame up a bit more. It was very reassuring to read your story!

    • admin says:

      Hi Jessie! Thanks for your comment! :) We are still working with the sheep. I have found their weakness for sure – molasses, apple and oat cookies that we get from the feed store. They are actually horse treats, but both our goats and sheep love them! It is much more difficult with sheep. They are just so different if you are used to goats. Goats are much more like dogs, they get attached to their humans, whereas sheep really do see us as sketchy to say the least! We just got our sheep back from the breeder (hoping for lambs this spring!) and they were gone for about a month. We thought it was going to be really hard getting them to trust us again (sheep seem to have shorter memories), but things have actually gone really well. They actually seem even more tame then they were when they left! I had to laugh about your goats “screaming bloody murder”. Ours do that too! We are like, mom and mom to them! :)

  15. Farmer Jessie says:

    Two weeks later and I’m the sheep whisperer! Just wanted to let you know my sheep are so much more tame. They eat from my hand (they LOVE sweet feed) and I rattle trained them with sweet feed in a tupperware. I copied your “Sheep sheep sheep” call and it works really well. They even bleat now (but much more quietly than a goat!) when they see me coming. I think they will always be jumpy, skiddish, and weary, but are now overall much calmer and tamer! I’m becoming a huge fan of sheep! Thanks for your help!

    • admin says:

      Jessie! That is great, I was just thinking about you and wondering how things were going…now I know! :) Thanks for keeping me in the loop! :)

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