Yesterday the donks their first close encounter of the woolly kind.
Since their arrival on Tuesday, they've had 16 Cormo ewes for neighbors in an adjacent paddock. The two groups have been studying each other through the woven wire fence separating them.
This arrangement is fine except for one drawback - the donkeys have free run of a small paddock and access to the barn. The sheep have a large pasture with a stand of trees for shelter - but the only way to the barn is through the donkey paddock. The problem isn't the sheep camping out - well-insulated with heavy fleece, they're fine outdoors, as long as they have shelter from the wind and protection from nasty weather. Yesterday's forecast called for possible freezing rain and snow later today. The sheep would need more cover. And so I was motivated to bring sheep and donks - face to face.
I unlatched the gate. In a giant swooosh, 16 ewes rushed in.
A strange dance followed. My ewes were excited to greet new friends up close, finally! It reminded me very much of the way they welcomed Sol, our rescue llama, when he arrived in December 2010.
But for three little equines unaccustomed to ovines, the sheep greeting was over enthusiastic. Instead of feeling welcomed, they felt threatened and outnumbered.They dashed into the barn. 16 curious ewes followed in unison. Donks bolted out of the barn and circled around the paddock. The sheep moving en masse followed. Every time the donks ran for safety into the barn, they were "chased" by the little flock. The south door is only 8 feet wide. I cringed watching the two groups race in and out of the barn.
I stepped into the pen. Although my donks barely know me, they ran to me for protection. Their expressions said, "Save us from these scary creatures".
With all the racing around, the sheep had lost their cool and shifted into reactive mode. The excitement triggered flight reflex but rather than flock toward me - the sheperd who has cared for them every day of their lives since birth - the silly ewes flocked up behind the donkeys for protection. Again, very similar to how they behave with their llama guardians.
The dance evoled into a whorl of donks flocking to shepherd, sheep swooshing and encircling around donks, shepherd trying to avoid being trampled.
From years of working with livestock I can tell you that once cortisol levels spiral upwards and out of control, you must stay calm and quickly diffuse the situation.
Fortunately, the donkeys spied the open gate to the pasture and went for it. They sprinted off down the field and I closed the gate. The sheep hadn't yet breakfasted, so I brought them into the barn and closed them in. Hunger over rode panic. Suddenly, I was no longer the bogey man.
Next, I lugged a small manger out into the paddock and loaded it with donkey breakfast. By this time, the donks had returned to the gate. With sheep out of sight, they re-entered the paddock for breakfast.
While donks and sheep chowed, I did some fast thinking. Clearly, the introductions need to move more gradually. To keep everyone sheltered from weather but within their respective comfort zones, I needed to re-configure the barn.
My dairy barn has many useful features - running water, well lit, large free span space with feeders running down the side. Vast space for constructing pens with movable panels to house and feed many groups of animals. But there is only one livestock egress - the eight foot door at the south gable end.
I quickly debated, how to bring the two flocks closer together and get everyone under cover?
After the ewes polished off breakfast I shifted them into another pen mid-barn. I then opened the door to the paddock and went out to feed the donks their grain by hand in small pans. After scarfing down the grain the donks were settled and decided it might be safe enough to follow me back to the barn. I wondered if they would balk at entering, but their energy had significantly settled. They could see that the sheep were contained. I had put a bit more hay in the feeder and topped off water. The donks cautiously came in.
But they were still somewhat wary and clustered by me. As they eventually relaxed, they wanted my attentions. We rubbed noses. I scritched backsides and behind ears. But any sudden movement in the sheep pen made three sets of long ears swivelled like antennae. Alert, but no panic.
Georgia, Arial and Pumpkin seemed jealous that the newcomers were hogging my attention. I made sure to give them an equal dose of scritches before leaving the barn.
It's clear that there will be an adjustment curve in transitioning a new species to the farm, perhaps a little more than I had counted on. That's okay. I'm a believer in making things work. It will take time and patience. Here are a few observations and lessons learned from yesterday's experience:
1. I didn't appropriately anticipate how the donkeys would react to sheep. Of course donkeys like sheep are prey animals. Flight is a primal protective instinct - although I imagine that unlike sheep, they can deliver nasty kicks if cornered. I need to consult Ann Firestone from the rescue for more tips on making the donks feel at home.
2. My sheep are tuned in to seeing non-canid species other than sheep and goats as guardians.I assume this is a conditioned response, based on their relationships with our llamas. Their intent was misunderstood by the donkeys.
3. Sheep are flighty. That is their only form of protection. Even the most pet-like ewes in that bunch: Pumpkin, Arial, Georgia, Violet, Blaze - went cuckoo once panicked.
4. Bottom line - the responses and behavior of both groups was entirely appropriate under the circumstances. The mild temporary insanity of this first encounter was a misfire of judgment on my part. But now I have a better understanding of what to expect. There were no signs of aggression of either group toward each other. They just need time.
With bad weather on the way, they will have time this week to become better acquainted from separate pens in the cozy confines of the barn. The donks can come and go into the small paddock but the sheep, unfortunately, are barn-bound until this weather passes.
This means our barn keeping chores have just multiplied. UHGG, there will be lots to shovel. But everyone is safe,calm, sheltered and fed. For the time being, this is the best I can do. We'll take one day at a time.