Saturday, February 9, 2013

Testosterone surge

We entered winter with sixteen Shetland sheep, all ewes, and six Dwarf Nigerian goats, all does. So far, we’ve been increasing our herd by buying animals—the Real Doctor has done hours and hours of homework, carefully selecting those animals with good genetics and good conformation.  It’s kind of like fantasy baseball, choosing a squad that’s as good as possible, but fantasy is constrained by realities of availability and cost.  We’ve also obtained a few animals that weren’t exactly our first-round draft picks, but that were very good deals, because the seller was moving or getting out of the sheep biz. 

This mode of herd growth suits me just fine, but the Real Doctor assures me that there is another way.  Strange as it is to me as a microbiologist, the Real Doctor tells me that you can both increase the number of animals and reap the benefits of genetic recombination by combining haploid cells from two animals—but you need male animals to do this.  I admit, I have had some reservations about this way to grow a herd.  Consultation with textbooks has reassured me about the biological plausibility, but the male animals themselves give me pause.  

First, there’s some terminology: male goats are bucks, not billys.  Goat people give you the hairy eyeball if you call male goats billys.  So, bucks.  Bucks are weird.  They have some behaviors that simply are not fit for polite society, impolite society, or any human society. There is a medical term, hircismus, describing “offensive odor of the axillae,” or foul body odor, and tellingly, the word is derived from a Latin word for a he-goat (sorry, buck.  I keep forgetting).  Bucks have an earned reputation for single-minded lechery.  And, they butt.  One of the contractors who worked here related the story of a friend of his who wanted to see what butting was like.  So, he donned a football helmet and challenged a buck.  One bop, and the contractor’s friend was k.o.’d. 

Well, we don’t have just one buck, we now have two bucks.  There’s Guy Fawkes, the seasoned pro, and Arion, the naïve yearling.  
Guy (left) and Arion (right). 
 Having just one buck is a problem—goats and sheep are herd animals, and keeping one by itself makes it go crazy(er).  They do have their unmentionable behaviors, but if you don’t watch them, you do don’t see them doing it.  They smell, though not as bad as I had feared—every once in a while, there’s a breeze that smells like an accident in a feta cheese factory, but that’s all.  They are lecherous, but fortunately my resemblance to a female goat is so slight that they don’t try anything with me.  And so far, the macho posturing has been minimal—they’ve been polled, so between the two of them, they have maybe six cm of horn.  They don’t butt each other much at all.  They’re not all that noisy; their call is an embarrassingly effete, quiet, apologetically squeaky “mee-eh-eh-eh-eh.”  They are a bit dumber than their sister-folk.  I can’t say I like them as much as the does, but I guess I’m reconciled to them. 

Then, there’s rams.  With a polled, fifteen-kilogram buck that comes up to your knees, there’s not too much to be afraid of.  However, rams are scary, and anyone who works with rams knows that you have to watch your back when you’re with them, even cute little Shetland rams.  They lack the bucks’ rich bouquet of personality quirks—everything seems to be about butting.

We now have two rams, a pair for the same reason we have two bucks.  We got them a week ago, much sooner than we were planning on acquiring any rams.  However, a friend had a ram with excellent genes, but just didn’t get along with any of her other animals—so, as long as our friend can use his services, he’s ours.  Also, our friend has a buddy who is shutting down her sheep operation, and she had a really nice ram, and another ewe, going at a fire sale price, so we picked up both of those animals too.

Rams, like any ruminants, need at least one companion.  However, they also need to know their place in the herd hierarchy, even if the herd is only two.  So, at first, they spent most of their time butting each other.  We were advised to keep them in a small pen rather than an open pasture, so they couldn’t gain too much momentum before impact, so I built them a 5-by-8 pen and closed them in.  After that, I couldn’t watch; I don’t like violence, and even though I knew it was their program and that they weren’t just built for it, but they needed it, I found it disturbing enough to turn my stomach.  Going to bed at night, it sounded like distant artillery—a steady, muffled “whhhump… … …whhhump…” that would go on for a half hour, then pause, then resume.  It continued in the morning. 

After a couple of days, the rams seem to have sorted out the general terms of their social contract (Glenfiddich is the boss, Pirate is the underling; both have the scars of negotiation on their heads).  
Glenfiddich (left) and Pirate (right) in their momentum-limiting pen.  Blow up the picture to see the battle scars.
There are still occasional collisions to iron out the details of their relationship, and we’ve been advised to keep them penned up for a week or more to make sure that everything is resolved.  It’s been a week, and for the last few days their efforts have been less focused on damaging each other, and more concentrated on damaging their pen.  They have smashed the door of their pen three times, and I’ve spent a lot of time and hardware reinforcing it.  Instead of waking up to the noise of a distant artillery duel, I woke up this morning to the sound of splintering wood.

This doesn’t endear them to me; I don’t appreciate my work being trashed, and I don’t appreciate having to fix it in the cold and dark.  It’s especially unnerving to do work on the inside of the pen when the rams are pawing at the ground and looking at you as if they’re wondering exactly which of your ribs they’d like to break on their scarred foreheads.  So, while I like the ewes and does and most of the chooks, and I am even getting along well enough with the boy goats—no, with the bucks—the rams are still a problem for me.  I hope they calm down, and that we can at least achieve détente.  And we should see lambs and kids ere too long, and they are loveable. 

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