Lone Star Farm | Barbados Blackbelly Sheep
Raising & Training
Animal husbandry is essential, but don't neglect the handling of these animals.
Training, you say? Definitely! There are several things your Blackbellies can learn, if you will be patient and consistent. But first, I want to talk about raising them.
Raising Barbados Blackbelly Sheep
How to house them and feed them can be found in almost any book about sheep. Other than stating that you should never change their feed abruptly, I'm going to let those other writers fill you in on that in detail. What I want to tell you about are things that you won't find in most books, and unless you are observant, you may miss these interesting points in the social life of a sheep. Being herd animals, sheep are very social within the flock and even more so in their inner family circle. If your flock is large enough to have two or three generations of different families, you will notice that an ovine midwife is present at most births. Our sheep usually have their lambs in the barn in a stall that opens into a paddock. From my office, I can watch the barn with a pair of binoculars without disturbing the mother-to-be and still know exactly what's happening by the actions of the midwife. The midwife stands in the doorway of the stall keeping watch. Sometimes she has lambs of her own, and her lambs also tell a story. If the lambs come running up to the stall door in play, they will suddenly come to a screeching halt at the door, showing respect that is due a mother in the process of bringing new life into the world. Once her lambs are born, mom will bring them out as soon as possible to introduce them to the group. This is after she has bonded with them and she has taught them to come when she calls by giving a low grumbling sound while backing away from them. Whenever we approach the barn and hear that sound, we know we have new lambs inside. I have even seen the ewe bring her lambs outside and take them to the trusted livestock guardian dog to introduce them to him.
For about the first week, the new lambs are allowed to nurse on demand, but they are not usually allowed to play with the lambs that arrived ahead of them until about the second week. Some persnickety first time mothers with a single lamb will not let their little darling play with the others until they are several weeks old. At the beginning of the second week, mom puts the lambs on a feeding schedule. Now they are only allowed to nurse when she calls them. When she calls, stand back, as they will be in a big hurry to get to her because she only lets them nurse for a few seconds at a time. It stands to reason that a lot of their early training with food is associated with the urgency of life or death. They wouldn't last long in the wild if they didn't obey when she called due to her keen awareness of a predator in the vicinity. By the third week, the single lamb who is often a ram lamb, has gone AWOL and has joined the rest of the lambs on an outing ignoring his poor mother's constant bleating and worrisome following of the group.
Rarely would you see this kind of behavior in a seasoned ewe, any more than you would see it in a human mother with six children who knows the significance of giving a command to the youngsters (instead of whining a plea in their direction), and then backing it up with a good swat when the command is ignored.
Speaking of lambs playing, there are certain skills that must be achieved in order for the youngsters to develop physically and mentally. The first game is racing. The lambs line up abreast at the edge of the pond, or designated spot. Then as a signal is given (undetectable by humans), the entire mob runs like the wind to the paddock fence. Turning when they reach it like swimmers hitting the pool wall in an Olympic event, they head back to the pond, repeating this sequence several times. How the winner is determined is anyone's guess as the newest mothers are basically freaking out at the sight of their little darlings going faster than the speed of light in what they have ruled a school zone, and they begin moving in to prevent some of the entrants from ever reaching the finish line.
By the following week, racing progresses to an imaginary track that encircles the pond as the sure-footed little speed demons cavort dangerously close to the waters edge causing even the shepherdess' heart to skip an occasional beat. Another week of practice and follow-the-leader will include jumping over the concrete bench at the pond's edge during the 100 yard dash in order to fulfill all the necessary requirements for earning the "Junior Bluebird" award, and being eligible to move on to the next level, the "King of the Mountain" competition. That competition can take place on a tree stump, a dirt mound, or on a stack of precisely positioned firewood, put there by the shepherd, that is easily rearranged according to the size of the lambs entered in that particular day's heat. The shepherd is more than willing to volunteer for clean-up duty as evidenced by his efforts at re-stacking the firewood daily.
After putting up with the little critters for these many weeks, the ewes are ready for a Mom's Day Out. Generally one, sometimes two ewes, are accommodating enough to babysit for the group in return for future favors. See below. This ewe has not even had her own lambs, yet she is keeping track of nine lambs, all awake I might add. She is a seasoned ewe with lots of experience as easily seen by her control of the situation.
"King of the Mountain" competition.
Training rams to be respectful is another aspect of raising sheep. You want to take the danger out of having to deal with rams. The first thing a ram needs to know is that he is not allowed to touch you. You will need to trim his feet and deworm him occasionally, the vet may need to draw blood for certain tests, and people appreciate receiving a ram that is manageable. Yes, you may touch him for maintenance purposes, but he is never to initiate the touch. People, people, people, please stop trying to be friends with your rams. You are creating your own monster if you pet your ram. He is not wired that way. He does not want to be your buddy, he wants to eat grass and breed ewes. If you are going to leave your ram in with your ewes all the time, do not pet your ewes either. Here is a word picture so you will understand what is happening. Your ram thinks he owns your ewes. They are his harem. When you flirt with his ewes by petting them, he takes offense. It's like he has them out on a date and you wander in and try to pick them up. He will not appreciate your gestures and may not tolerate it. We start training our rams as soon as they are weaned. All it takes to startle a lamb into backing away from you is to quickly throw your hand up and say "no" in a firm voice. That will work for quite some time, usually until he reaches about a year of age. That's when a ram will generally try to test you. If he ever tries to touch you, or if he gives you a threatening head bob, don't wait until he butts you before you take action. We feed our sheep out of metal dog pans. They serve us well when we need something to make a loud noise as we bang it on the top of the ram's head hard enough to ring his bell and let him know we mean business. It won't do any damage to the ram (you'll know that if you have more than one ram and have watched them "ram" each other), but it is enough to deter him. Keep in mind, I am NOT advocating hitting him anytime you feel like it to keep him at arm's length. Hitting him should be a direct consequence to his threat and will probably only have to be done one time, maybe two. If you continually antagonize an animal by hitting it, you will cause it to become mean. I mentioned the feed pans because feeding time is usually when you will see a ram getting testy with you. He wants his food and he wants it now! Don't ever feed a ram out of your hand. A ram's potential for becoming dangerous is directly related to his lack of fear or respect of humans. That is what makes it essential to castrate ram lambs who have been bottle fed. A bottle fed ram thinks of a human as his mother and has therefore lost his fear of humans. As soon as he reaches puberty, he will not only become a problem, he can be very dangerous. Handle your ram lambs as little as possible, except for the necessary maintenance issues, so that you are not creating your own monsters. There are always exceptions to every rule, but they are exceptions. If you know someone who has a "pet" ram, wish them luck. That is an accident looking for a place to happen.
Ewe lambs stick pretty tight to their mothers ordinarily, but those ornery little ram lambs are full of themselves. They are constantly getting into things, and if they can't eat it, they'll try to tear it up. They will chew on anything. I have a picture of them, well take a look. They are all fascinated by the garden hose, but check out the one looking back at us. Doesn't he look like he's thinking, "we can't eat it, should we tear it up?"
Before you know it, they've taken over the place, pooping as they go. What we do to teach them not to come into the barn is quite simple. We startle them, but we do it with an object they begin to focus on, without us yelling at them, or chasing them out of the barn. We sit in a chair and work on something that has needed to be fixed for a while and use that time to train lambs. We get out our push broom and as they begin to enter the barn, we slide the upside down push broom toward them. They scatter and run away. It is so fearful to baby lambs that it doesn't take but a few time for them to think the barn has a boogie man in it and then you see this kind of behavior following.
Training Barbados Blackbelly Sheep
I personally think that Blackbelly sheep are moderately intelligent as sheep go. Or perhaps, more than intelligent, good problem solvers. They know what it takes to survive. They know what to do to stay out of harm's way. I have heard it said that this breed is very flighty. Ours are not as much as some I have seen. I think that is due to the environment in which they are raised. We live on 5 acres , plus we recently purchased another 5 acres adjacent to us. We live on a busy corner in a little subdivision. Most homes out here have at least 5 acres. Tractors drive by, horses are ridden passed our house, motorcycles roar by and of course, we have the teenage drivers whose boom boxes could raise the dead. Once the lambs are used to that, it takes quite a bit to upset them, unless of course, you chase them. You must remember that sheep are prey animals. Predators eat them. They must run for their lives instantly if something pursues them. To them, it is a matter of life and death. They are programmed that way for their very survival. If you chase them, you are the predator. Not only will you NOT be able to outrun them, each time you chase them, you will cause them to distrust you more and more. DON'T CHASE THEM. You can lead them almost anywhere with food. Get a bucket and put some feed in it. Let them see you use that feed bucket to pour the feed into their trough, or into whatever kind of container you use to feed them. It won't take long and they will recognize the bucket and begin to come to the bucket. If your sheep are grass fed, once a week give them a handful of oats poured from the bucket. Oats are cheap, if you only use a handful a week, a bag will last you a long, long time. If you need to catch them, don't grab at them. Any attempt you make at grabbing them will be seen by the sheep as danger. Lead them into a pen with the bucket. If they don't trust you enough to follow you into a pen, then pour the oats into a pan from the bucket, set it down and walk away. They will eventually want to come in and get the oats, but not if you are standing there waiting for it to happen. You will have to make a habit of doing it that way with a non-trusting sheep, until they are used to walking into the pen to eat. After they are used to this, quietly walk up and shut the gate behind them. Don't rush to the gate and slam it shut, or you are going to have to start all over. Remember they are prey animals and they are faster than you are. Slowly walk up to the gate (don't sneak up to the gate like a stalking predator) but move slowly and calmly, avoiding eye contact as much as possible. Remember, a predator stares at them without blinking and eye, watching their every move, getting ready to pounce on them. The are prey animals, they know what a predator looks like and what a predator does. You may say "See, I knew these sheep were flighty." They are for sure more flighty than wool sheep, but wool sheep could not survive in the wild and that is what makes me say that Blackbelly sheep are fairly intelligent, or rather good problem solvers. Staying alive is a pretty good problem to solve on your own, don't you think? Once you get them in a small pen, you can approach them by moving slowly, talking gently to them, and NOT lunging at them. We have many a ram that will let us walk right up to them and take hold of them, even in an open pasture. They don't start out that way. It takes training and patience.
Lambs, on the other hand, are very trusting for the first couple of days of life and do not exhibit the flight syndrome inside a stall. In fact, we put our ewes into a stall after they give birth for a couple of days, or at least overnight, and when we go into the stall to feed and water, we must be careful that the lambs don't follow us out of the stall when we leave. It doesn't take long before they are sure who mom is, but until they are, they look at us as if to say, "Are you my mama?" It is so cute, you want to pick them up, but don't. They need to bond to mama. Newborn lambs are quite trusting of their shepherd. If you work that trust to your advantage, you can have a fairly calm and quiet flock. Take your time with them. Don't be so rushed when you have to work with them that you handle them roughly. Make sure you don't cut into the quick while trimming their feet. Talk to them in soothing tones, it reassures them. Before long, they will be so sure of your intentions toward them, they will be taking advantage of you. Really, is happens sooner that you would think.
One of our rules is we don't let animals, except the livestock dogs, come into the main part of the barn. We don't want them fouling the floor. There is enough to step in outside the barn. Before you know it, the lambs will be coming into the barn to see what is going on in there.
Mom's day out.