tagine

Tagine and Tatanka were born sometime in April last year so they are about fifteen months old. Navajo Churro are a slow-maturing breed so we don’t expect them to reach full size for another three months.

Tagine has turned into an incredibly handsome male sheep. In some ways it’s too bad that he’s castrated because he probably would have been a great breeding male.

Too late for that!

On the one hand, he also has a great personality. (Yes, sheep have personalities.) He’s friendly, sweet, and he adores pets. He’s been like for almost as long as we’ve had him, unlike Tatanka who only recently grew into a friendly, affectionate sheep.

On the other hand, Tagine can be a bit too insistent about petting and interactions with humans. Sometimes he pushes aside one of the other sheep because he wants all the attention. Sometimes he paws at your feet or legs because, again, he wants more attention.

And sometimes he thrashes his head a bit against our shins. Thrashes is too strong of a verb, but it’s related to the head butting that sheep do. As I’ve explained before, mild head butting can actually be quite affectionate. It’s some sort of “you’re in my flock, I like you” gesture. The sheep do it with one another and they also do it with us.

Stronger head butting is, however, an assertion of dominance. The worst is obviously in-tact (non-castrated) rams who spar over ewes and pecking order (note: wrong animal metaphor; flock order??).

Tagine has never pulled a real head butt on either of us. He has occasionally gotten into mild tussles with other sheep. They all do from time to time. But he has this middle ground, gray zone of “it’s a little more than an affectionate butt, but less than pulling dominance.”

And when a sheep’s noggin, which has a reinforced plate on their skull because of the head butting, and horns thwack against a human’s shins, it can be rather unpleasant. About a week ago, Tagine did thwack my shins and I got a yellow-green bruise on my right shin from it. I’ve been somewhat wary and nervous around him ever since.

Ron and I half-joke that if he becomes a jerk, he’ll turn into his name after all. It’s somewhat truthful, but also incredibly distressing.

We have gotten so fond of the sheep since they joined the farm a little less than a year ago. We are quite sentimental about them, foremost Half Moon of course. Ron has been surprised how attached he is to the sheep. He can’t imagine eating them either. They were supposed to be organic mowers and dinner, but now we’re pretty sure they will never be on our dinner table. If they get really sick or injured, we’ll have to see what happens. If they are sick and we have to put them down, we might not be able to eat them. If they are injured, that’s another thing. For now, they have multiple farm roles as mowers, wool manufacturers, poop producers, and pets. They more than pay for their winter hay from these roles.

They really have become pet-like. Clearly, they are not as domesticated as dogs and cats. For one, see shin thwacks. But they like petting and come running when we rattle corn. They like being hand fed treats (corn, apples). They put up with me pulling burrs and brambles out of their coats. They walk up to us and ask for pets. If we stand there with our arms hanging down, they often put their heads in our hands, clearly wanting (more) pets. Tagine especially will come up and lean against our leg or hip. But despite all these actions that are very pet-like, they are not entirely pets.

The Sheep Lady who had sheep on our land before we got our own told Ron that about the only way to discipline a sheep is to bop them on the bottom side of their muzzle. She said the bops really confuse and stop them because it doesn’t happen to them any other way. Bopping them on top of their nose or head isn’t a good idea because it can trigger more of their head butting instinct. That makes perfect sense. Bopping on top is more like sheep butting so their response is to butt back. But bopping under their chin would never happen with other sheep.

The problem is that it can actually be a bit difficult to reach under their head and bop them, especially when they have their heads down. And when they head butt–either one another or a human–they have their heads lowered. It’s the only way the top of their heads can meet one another–or one’s shins. And, I must admit, it’s a little nerve wracking to lean over and put your hand under a sheep’s face who has just thwapped you, especially when it’s a near-full-grown male.

An alternative disciplining technique, which both Ron and I have used, is walking assertively toward a sheep who wants to head butt. Typically sheep back up and then approach each other to head butt–either slowly if they are being affectionate or more quickly if they are in a spat (and at a run if it’s two in-tact males). If a human walks toward a sheep as he (and it usually is he) is backing up, he has to keep backing up–but the distance keeps closing so he backs up even more. He gets confused, keeps backing up, and at some point turns and jogs off as if to say, “okay, okay! You win!” Both Ron and I have done this with Tagine to good effect. But at times, you are in a geographical situation where you can’t really walk toward him very easily. He doesn’t back up that much. You are too close. There’s stuff in the way. Or tree branches or something else makes it difficult to walk forward.

This is one of those times when sheep ownership is really complicated. I don’t like that Tagine can be somewhat assertive, even though it’s largely driven by affection. The black humor response is to tell him that we might eat him. But the upsetting part is that I really don’t want to eat him. I just wish that I could explain to him what behavior is okay and when he crosses the line. Obviously that’s not an option. I don’t want him to be assertive, but it’s just part of his sheepiness.

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