When I first started working with sheep, I assumed that over time we would develop some sort of “relationship”. Even at the beginning of my farming journey, I recognized that it probably wasn’t a good idea to get too close to an animal that you are eventually going to eat or cull (remove from the flock), but I still assumed that there would be some sort of connection. After all, I was going to be spending a lot of time with them. I was going to be caring for them, feeding them and seeing to all their needs. Wasn’t it inevitable that we would develop a bond?
The start of this story actually begins some time ago. Brody and I had chickens when we lived in Devlin and I never understood what the chicken farmers of Instagram were talking about. These chickens did not have personalities and there was no danger of forming any sort of relationship with them. I couldn’t get near the hens and the roosters frequently tried to attack me. Although we enjoyed having them and observing their antics, it was clear that they were livestock and bred for a different purpose. After we slaughtered the first group, I remembered wondering if I was going to have an issue eating them because I “knew” them. Nope.
But when it came to the sheep, I didn’t feed this lesson forward. I talked to the sheep when I was with them. I named a few of them. I tried to interact with them a lot. I gave them scratches and tickled their chins. And when these things didn’t automatically work, I started bribing the receptive ones (bottle babies) into interacting with me by giving them extra pellets. In short, I did a lot of the things you naturally do with skittish pets you are trying to befriend. And the sheep continued to tell me that my only value to them is as a provider of food.
It is not just that they resist my efforts to bond with them; I don’t think they understand what I am trying to do. It is like I am speaking a different language that they have never heard. Which makes sense because they aren’t bred to be pets, they are bred to be livestock. As someone raised in a city on a steady stream of Disney movies, I don’t think I realized how ingrained it was in me to anthropomorphize animals. I think I assumed that all animals were just one human interaction away from being a pet. Sheep have corrected my misunderstanding.
You would think the exception would be the bottle lamb which is basically what it sounds like. We fed them with a baby bottle for the first couple of months of their life. Peanut was a bottle lamb and so is more comfortable around people. But what I have come to realize is that this does not mean we have a relationship. She sees me as a source of food and that really is it. If I don’t have food, she immediately leaves. She tolerates me touching her only because she thinks it will get her food. As soon as another person appears who she thinks is more likely to have food, she runs over to them. All of the behaviour they show that might indicate they “like” me is really about them getting more food.
So, while our sheep are more comfortable with me over time and some show a higher level of curiosity than others, I would not say that we have a relationship. This doesn’t mean I am going to stop naming some, talking to them or sneaking Peanut pellets. It’s just that now I know that those actions are about me, and I have a more realistic appreciation for how they are being received. Sheep are a prey animal, raised to be livestock and with a set of instincts thousands of years old. The lambs teach me this every day. Each morning, I enter into the lamb pen. And every day their first reaction is to run away from me. I have come to realize this is a good thing.
Gwen in the south pasture; August 29, 2023. Taken by Brody.