Thursday, January 6, 2011

Open-field shedding

This week we worked on shedding, which we’ve only done a few times under Brian’s supervision, and a few times on our own.

The object is to split a packet of sheep into two groups, and in a trial the target sheep may be painted with a mark or wear a collar. Today, Brian asked me to try to shed a group of lambs off from adult katahdins. There were about 15 sheep in total.

Brian wanted me to put the lambs into an adjoining field, accessible by a small gate.

I knew this was going to be tough, and it didn’t disappoint. The lambs have a tendency to stay together within the flock, so it was possible to create a gap that would remove most of the lambs. The original idea was to split off one group of lambs, move them off a ways, and then return to split out the rest. This is what’s done in the ‘international shed’ in competitions.

I gave Rodeo a lie down and spent some time trying to move among the sheep and maneuver them so that the lambs were concentrated on one side. Eventually I succeeded and managed to call Rodeo into an opening and split them off, but then I realized that a couple of katahdins were in with the lambs. I was somewhat handicapped by the fact that I’m not particularly good at distinguishing sheep breeds from one another, and some of the katahdins looked a little bit like the lambs to me.

My wife is from the Philippines and often complains that white people all look alike to her. I think I can say the same about sheep.

After awhile, we managed to get some of the lambs into the adjoining field. I split some more of the lambs off from the remaining group, but again a katahdin or two had infiltrated the lambs, so I stalked off to try to separate them. Behind me, unnoticed, the rest of the katahdins decided to join the lambs through the gate, which I had left open.

So I stood back while Brian took Doc into the adjoining field to separate out the katahdins and bring them back out into the main field, and it took all of about five minutes for him to accomplish the task.

We spent the rest of the lesson on shedding, now with a simpler task of simply splitting the remaining katahdins into two groups. Rodeo and I continued to struggle, at first because he wasn’t taking his downs very well. When I got that under control, he was too tight on his flanks, pushing into the sheep instead of arcing wide around them. That upset them and made it hard to keep them still long enough to create a gap. Instead, I walked into them and they’d keep moving past and around me, probably nervous because of Rodeo.

But after awhile, Rodeo’s flanks loosened. I’m not quite sure why, to be honest, because I don’t think I corrected him. My best guess is that I was more firm and ‘got into his head,’ as Brian puts it, and that made him take the task a bit more seriously and think more about what he was doing.

Brian watched me as I struggled, giving occasional advice, but it wasn’t really coming together into a coherent whole. Finally, I could see him think it through for a moment, and he said: “You’ve got to get them relaxed and settled. Then it’s much easier to create an opening. Once you’re in the opening, call the dog to you and then step back away from the sheep.”

It was like a little light bulb went off in my head. I’d been struggling for a half hour or so, but it was time well spent: When Brian gave the clear explanation, I understood it implicitly. I walked back out, set Rodeo down, then walked into the sheep and stamped my foot and waved my hands a bit. They split to either side, I called Rodeo and backed away as I did so, and just like that we had completed a shed.

We did it again for good measure, and it went just as smoothly.

Brian pointed out that the reason for moving out of the sheep as soon as I had created the gap was that these sheep are used to people and tend to flock to them, so if I had stayed where I was they might move right back towards me again, narrowing the distance between the two groups and making it more difficult to keep them apart.

At some trials, the sheep are just the opposite and shy away from people, so in those cases its best to stay in the sheep to help keep them apart.

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