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Layman’s guide to understanding sheep language

idal/Getty Images sheep
SHEEP TALK: Who says sheep can’t talk? You just have to know how to listen to them.
Front Porch: Sheep may be dumb, but they’re not stupid — there is a difference.

If I were writing a dictionary, the word “dumb” might be illustrated by a sheep on the opposite side of the fence from its buddies, going spastic because it can’t find the hole to get on the other side. I wouldn’t use a sheep to illustrate the word “stupid,” because they’re not. Put feed on the other side of the fence, and the lone sheep will find it. You have to be stupid to pass up supper!

I’ve noticed recently that sheep carry on conversations, both with themselves and their master — namely me. Here is the first edition of how to speak sheep:

• “We want to go to the new pasture today.” How do they say that? By running along the fence where I’m working on something and baaing loudly. Don’t turn me in to PETA. There was still plenty of grass to eat. It was just a bit taller than they prefer. Goats would eat it down to the ground. Sheep just look at it and let it go to seed so they have more next year. See, they’re not stupid! (Draw your own conclusion about goats.)

• “I don’t like to train for 4-H alone; bring my buddy.” This one is easy. If our grandson, Graham, takes his ewe, Chatty, for a walk by herself, she lives up to her name. In fact, she doesn’t shut up ever. Take a pen mate with her, and they both behave — more or less. At least they’re both quiet as they walk together.

• “I want to go to the barn … now!” Graham’s yearling ewe, Daisy, leads fine going away from the barn. Once he turns her back toward the barn and she sees it, she picks up the pace. He no longer must tug on her halter. In fact, he must hold on for dear life. He’s gotten pretty good at putting on the brakes and making her stop, just to show her who’s in charge. There’s no doubt what she’s thinking, though: “Enough of this foolishness. I want to go back to my pen with my buddies and eat hay.”

• “Help, I’m stuck!” The older ewes get penned up at night, just in case a wily coyote might be on the prowl. One side of their enclosure has field fence. More than once this summer I’ve found a head stuck in the fence in one of those small wire squares. How hard the ewe protests when I try to help her depends on the size of her head. One slid out easily. One blockhead wasn’t coming out for anything, so I had to cut one wire to help her slide out. Sheep!

• “Help, I’m trapped and I’m dying!” The feed bunk for the wethers had a gate in front of it. One morning, one of them was stuck under the feed bunk, wedged in tight, probably trying to get a few grains that fell through the cracks. I pulled on his rear end to tug him out backward. He didn’t budge, and he didn’t really help either. I tried to roll him out on this side — no luck. Finally, I unwired the gate in front of the bunk and pulled him out feet first. He sat there for a second, realized he was still alive, hopped to his feet, jumped back over the feed bunk and began eating — just like that! Stupid? I don’t think so.

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