As the grass got longer and denser and covered more of the property over summer, I had to eat my own words about how much my sheep like long grass. To be fair, they truly don't seem to mind making their way into a stand of long grass to graze. But this season has taught me that while they don't mind visiting long grass, they don't want to live there! And they have a valid point. In grass that is longer than they are tall, the wind is unlikely to find its way in to chase the flies away, and it's pretty much impossible to see predators sneaking up on you.
What the sheep need and want are places where there is little or no grass cover where they can hang out when they are not grazing. These places are preferably on a hilltop or saddle, with flat, granite rock outcrops and a view across the surrounding hillside. Shade would be a good addition, but doesn't win out over the other characteristics. (So, in my tree planting program going forward, the plan is to focus on the preferred hang-outs.)
The long grass had me pretty much stymied all summer as to how to shepherd in the face of so much abundance: the sheep didn't need to be shepherded to augment their diets, and getting anywhere in a deliberate move meant wading through deep grass. My perplexity about how to adapt my dry-season shepherding style to this year's bounty was further complicated by Janie, Chance and me all requiring surgery in December, and further confused by the worst fly season we've seen yet.
December was mostly spent recovering from surgery: Chance for an eye tumour, Janie for mammary tumours and me for a bone chip in my ankle. We did "chase" fly: checking the sheep quite regularly and treating any that were struck despite jetting in early December, but it was a struggle. One day I managed to put all the sheep in the yards without a dog, since both Janie and Chance were out of action.
January was better, as I finally gave up trying to get all the annual grasses in the low country grazed before they went to seed, and moved the flock to the hill. There are more places up top that are either already rocky or short grass, or could be readily made so by the sheep. So they were happier, and healthier. It's still a challenge to move them through much of the landscape, and we don't go anywhere fast, but at least we are back to something that feels familiar.
While Janie and Chance were out of commission, it was brought home to me (yet again!) that I really need to take the next generation of dogs to the next stage of training. I've put this off because I could, and also because I'm still not sure how to do it.
Yesterday, though, I decided I had to take Pearl, Janie's daughter, and do SOMETHING in a shepherding context. She's done a fair bit of work with me in the past, but not much since I started trying to figure out how to shepherd. The challenge is shepherding requires both restraint and power--the ability to move the sheep if we have to, and the patience to sit quietly when we don't. Suffice it to say restraint is not high on the list for any young border collie.
I put Pearl on a lead and got her to help Janie push the flock down into a long-grass flat. Pearl was not particularly happy about working on a lead, and to be fair, it's not something I've ever done in past dog training. However, as we persisted, Pearl started paying attention to the sheep that were challenging her, the ones turning to face her and stamping. Keeping Pearl on the lead, we just kept walking into these sheep, with Pearl's full agreement.
In fact, at one point I heard a little "Snap!" and realised Pearl was threatening a very recalcitrant Vicki by snapping her teeth (she wasn't close enough to get a bite). Walking up nose to nose with a sheep is something neither Janie nor Chance has ever been willing to do, so this is quite an exciting development. It gives Pearl a gold star in the "power" department. Now we just have to work on restraint.