Twelve is old for a sheep. We’ve had just a few of them survive to that age, and they seldom last much longer — but we’ve got one now who’s intent on seeing how far she can get.
Licorice, a black ewe, is easily the oldest animal on our farm; she turned twelve this April. She arrived in just the third of our lambing seasons, and she’s the last surviving lamb we have from Dot, our flock matriarch (who died in 2011, just days after her own twelfth birthday). Licorice has the distinction of being one of only two remaining animals which made the move with us from Illinois at the end of 2007.
As special of an animal as she is, we have no illusions about keeping Licorice over the coming winter. It’ll be hard to do, but we will definitely have her butchered this fall; it just wouldn’t be right to try to make her go through another winter in the condition she’s in.
Her biggest problem is that she’s lost most of her eyesight. If she were a person, she’d be classified as “legally blind.” Even so, she gets around remarkably well. She keeps her head lowered most of the time, and sort of feels her way along by evaluating what her horns bump into. Coming back from the pasture, when she comes to a fence, she feels her way along it until she finds the gate. Then she walks slowly in the direction of the barn … until she runs into it. Then she feels her way along the barn until she finds the open door. And then she comes in with the rest of the flock. In the morning, she does the reverse to go out to pasture. It’s actually kind of fun to watch.
The challenge is that the mid-summer pasture is now getting pretty well picked over. The sheep are having to look harder for good stuff out there … and our legally-blind grande dame is having an especially tough time doing so.
Our backyard is a different story. We’re leaving some sections with good clover unmowed, and there’s also an abundance of leafy weeds like burdock around the edges of the yard. Best of all: our apple tree has been dropping quite a few windfalls lately. For a sheep, this is a wonderful smorgasbord feast. What we usually do is bring the entire flock to the backyard for a time (perhaps 15 minutes or so), and let them hit it hard.
Then, before the flock can move on to destroying the flower beds or grape vines, we move most of them out to pasture.
Licorice, however, gets to stay for the rest of the day. This would not be possible with any other sheep: they usually get agitated when separated from the rest of the flock, or when they realize the rest of the flock has wandered away. They start bellowing, and look to see where everyone else has gone. Not Licorice. She’s way past caring. She just grazes along her oblivious way, feeling with her mouth from one delicacy to another until it’s time to just sit down and ruminate for awhile. Then she’ll get up and do it all again.
I do go out and check on her from time to time, and we make sure she has a bucket of water (and that she knows how to find it). And we do bring her back to the barn each night, so she can be with the rest of the flock.
Here’s hoping that this will all be enough to pull Licorice through to October. It’ll certainly be a little sad taking her to the butcher, but satisfying to see her “go the distance” — and to know that we’re sparing her the final rigor of a Michigan winter.
In the meantime, we’re enjoying watching her enjoy the backyard feast!