Last week(ish) I tried and failed to do the basic farm sort. All sheep to pens, rough gate sort, then a more refined sort in a smaller space. At first i found myself blaming my dog. I think everyone has done that at somepoint. When you feel so off kilter that you find the easiest thing to blame; the stock, the farm, the course, the spectators, the weather, the neighbors, the dog.
The truth of it is this: I’m at the end of my own education. I’ve been able to swing along through all of this knowing very little about sheep and more about how to move cows. Mostly because Molly is not out to cause trouble, which allows for a lot of latitude. I wallowed in that uncomfortable space between recognizing that the problem was my own lack of education and blaming my dog for a little while. I did think i could just slide along, but as i develop high standards for my own work, the time i can spend faking it becomes infinitely smaller.
With all that in mind, i packed up my dog this morning for a lesson and she stayed in the car all morning. I realized as i pulled into the parking area that I needed a lesson and she didn’t.
Here are my lesson notes, mostly because a long post format would be really really long.
Sheep Groups – Most sheep want to hang out together. As prey animals, there is safety in numbers. Large groups function much like schools of fish. However, sheep self sort based on their groups. In each group there is a lead sheep or two.
* Major Groups: Ewes & Weaned Lambs
* Minor/Sub Ewe Groups at the farm as as follows: 4 old ewes (square tags), less old ewes (which separate by location of birth, not all from the farm), yearling ewes (again which separate by location of birth, not all from the farm). All separate again by breed type; Clunes, Highland (horns), Blueface Leicester, Border Leicester and crosses. Sub group differentiation by breed minor to subgroup by age.
Sorting Motion/Large Group Theory – Think of sorting like different combs; each finer than the next. In the field, sheep will group often by their natural groups – the folks they want to hang out with, all things being equal. If most lambs and ewes are separate, send the dog for the group you want and leave what you don’t. Should not kill grouping instinct in dog. Control the instinct, not extinguish. Face the group you want, always. Use body position and dogs instinct to come to balance as tools. Watch heads; low heads are under pressure. Focus on directing the lead sheep. If she’s going to the right spot and the groups speed is slow enough to allow them time to think and see where she is going the rest will follow. Big holes are easier to see. Even easier when not at a dead run. Use dog as fence when doing large gate sort. Low pressure at gate, use body to sort when possible. Stock stick can reach over less sensitive ewe to apply pressure to more sensitive lamb.
Sorting/Small Group Theory – When moving group to smaller sorting space, stop away from smaller entry and allow sheep to see the hole. Small slow motions for small groups. Sheep repel the constant pressure cattle need to keep moving. Lambs require less pressure to move or turn away than adult ewes, so when possible, look to turn the lambs back bringing the ewes forward. Get ok with the sheep exiting behind the your body. Once the sheep is in place, back off the pressure or it may bolt. When possible, keep the sheep you’ve sorted out in line of sight through the box you’re sorting them into. So the line is penned sheep, sorting pen, sorted sheep. If they won’t stay nearish on their own, use dog to keep them closeish, but not under stress.
Closing – Dog is both a tool and a fence. Larger groups produce more pressure, allowing dog to work further off the group.
Totally grumpy that i didn’t video, but i’ll get over it. Even if my dog didn’t every come out of her crate, it was a great lesson.