Notes from Windward: #59

Introducing Betty Boop, our Jacob ewelamb

Betty Boop, our Jacob ewelamb
Over that past year, we've begun to branch out and learn more about what are called "primitive breeds." While we're primarily working with the Karakul sheep from Persia, I also happened to run into a remarkable little ewelamb at the sale. She was the only Jacob lamb there, which isn't a good sign, but after spending a few minutes with her, I decided to bring her home and see how she fit in with the other sheep.

Sheep have a reputation for being stupid, and that really isn't fair. They're fairly smart at being sheep, and I'd suggest that they're not really "stupid" but rather are just highly self-centered, a condition which can give rise to some very stupid-looking behaviour. Four-leggers aren't the only ones to experience that sort of problem.

The fact that some four-legged folk don't tend to pay much attention to their environment is different thing altogether from their being unable to fathom what's going on around them. It isn't so much a matter that sheep "don't get it," as it is that they just don't seem to care very much. It's been said that something is interesting to the extent that it has a bearing on your interests. Sheep are about the ultimate fatalists, confronting most matters with an attitude of "Yah, ... whatever."

Betty does a "show pose" for the camera
Since the domestic breeds have been raised for a thousand generations in a situation in which the key choices have been made for them, that's an understandable attitude for them to adopt. One of the things that I find fascinating about getting to know the primitive breeds is that they don't have that air of complacency about them. They're spiritually closer to those ancient memories in which the woods were filled with wolves, and only the watchful and wary could hope to survive. The primitive breeds are different; they watch and they remember.

The name that stuck for the new Jacob was "Betty Boop" since the black patches around her eyes and her remarkable set of four curly horns give her a look reminicent of the cartoon character. The spots and horns are characteristic of this ancient breed. The name is drawn from the Biblical tradition that this line derives from the spotted sheep which Jacob received as his payment for watching over the herds of owned by Laban (Genesis 30:27-43).

About the only time modern sheep get excited is when someone breaks open a bail of hay or shows up with the grain bucket, but primitive sheep can spook on just about anything. When Betty spooks, she doesn't just run away, she bounds away like an antelope. She "boings" off from all four feet and flys through the air until she lands to "boing" again. In a few of these hopping motions, she can clear fences and really cover some ground. I guess that this high-altitude form of running makes it difficult for a racing predator to get a grip on an animal. I know that it's very funny to watch.

Old #10 - our herd-mom
Now that we're well into lambing season, and at this late date, I'm sad to report that it doesn't look like Betty is going to be lambing this year. The prime reason that young ewes get sent to market is that they prove to be infertile, and perhaps that's why she showed up at the sale last fall. We don't keep infertile ewes either unless there's a solid organizational reason to do so. For example, a commercial flock would have sent old #10 down the road years ago because she isn't able to produce milk. She's a good mother and produces twin lambs each year, but not a drop of milk, and so we have to bottle feed her lambs for her each year.

Being a reliable source of twin lambs is a strong argument in her favor, since we always have goat milk from the barn that can be used to get the lambs through to weaning. What's even more in her favor is that she's one of the lead ewes. She's savvy, brave and smart, and the rest of the ewes follow her lead. Flocks that are kept in pasture pens don't need lead ewes, but our flock "works for a living" wandering the surrounding woods and hills. The exercise is good for them, and the diversity of feed is very healthful. Still, someone has to be in charge enough to be able to remember the way home. About six years ago, we had a dog attack the flock, and #10 and her sister LV faced down the dog while the other ewes ran for it. They sustained serious bites on their faces, and LV lost the use of one eye, but none of the sheep were lost.

LV has passed on, and #10 is at least ten years old, so we're on the lookout for who's going to step forward as the next generation of leaders. Surprisingly, Betty is showing real potention in this regard. She's domesticated enough that you can walk up and pet her (when she feels like it), but she's also primitive enough that she keeps a constant watch on what's going on around her. This winter, we've noticed on a number of occassions that when the flock comes over the hill on it's way home for the night, it's often Betty that's in the lead.

Or maybe, we're just rationalizing our desire to keep her because she's really cute and makes us laugh.

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