It was a long day, with some fraught moments, but we were successful.
The usual routine is we move them to fresh grass every morning. When we didn’t do that, they became anxious and spooky, surging as a flock back and forth to the fencelines. I cautioned Kyle to move slowly and quietly so they did not go through the fence.
Slowly and quietly we began building our catch system out of wire panels, T-posts, and zip ties. As we laid everything out in the grass, we realized that we were one fencing panel short of ideal for a flock of 30. We had one panel left at the barn, but I was worried about leaving hungry, anxious, flighty sheep for another twenty minutes while we drove back to get it. Kyle had the brilliant idea that we could simply build half the system and get the sheep inside the secure walls, then go back for the extra fencing.
We pounded fence posts and lashed the panels to build the catch pen. “We’ll only have one chance so everything has to be tight,” I warned Kyle. After double-checking all our ties, we spread sweet feed inside and opened the electric fencing. The sheep poured in. One lamb ran in the wrong direction but I got behind him and he darted through the opening. Kyle dragged the top panel closed.
They were all in.
We sagged with relief. The first major hurdle was crossed. After finishing their grain the sheep put their heads down and began to graze.
We drove back for the panel, returned to the field, and began building the bugle, also called the force pen.
This bugle pen has a curved side leading to the chute. The curve of the bugle follows the radius path of the gate. As the gate closes behind the sheep, it sweeps the curve and the ewes are forced into the chute.
Kyle knew nothing about sheep handling but once I explained the concept he immediately realized we should pull a tape measure and pound fence posts at regular intervals ten feet from the hinge side of our ten-foot gate. This type of basic spatial principle usually occurs to me too late, when a sheep ducks around my system. Thanks to Kyle, not this time.
Next we had to put together the chute and ramp. Last summer I had built a cleated ramp and scrounged shipping platforms from the camp’s burn pile. The platforms, set on edge along the sides of the ramp, were different heights so I had braced them together with scraps of 2×4.
The platforms are very heavy. As we grunted them into position and pounded posts to keep them upright, Kyle couldn’t believe I had set it all up by myself last year.
At the last minute, Kyle had thrown our old 6×6 gate post into the truck. Laid over the 6×6 stacked on top of a 4×4, the ramp was exactly the right height to lead into the trailer.
The middle of the chute was made of slatted pallets on each side. Since tests have shown that chutes work best if they are solid, at the sheep’s eye level I had screwed in scraps of 1/2″ plywood. Everything was tied to T-posts. The look was extremely ramshackle.
However, it was free.
The chute and ramp led directly into the trailer. The photo below is taken from inside the bugle. The scrap of 2×4 leaning against the fence is holding open a plywood gate. When we actually used the system, the 2×4 came out of the pen and Kyle stood outside the fence at that gate, ready to swing it closed so sheep could not back down the ramp. (When we take our system down this fall, I will add a hook to that gate so it can be hooked open to the fence.)
At last we were ready. (We hoped.) We opened the gate. Three-quarters of the sheep surged into the bugle. Without much fuss, a few adventurous ram lambs trotted up the ramp into the trailer for grain. More of the flock followed. I swept behind them and pushed my ewe, Geranium, the last in line on the ramp, inside. Kyle slid the door closed.
Success! We were very excited. We set a temporary post to hold the remaining sheep in the pen, and then began the arduous drive out of the field.
Getting the trailer out of the pasture was the toughest part of the long day. To accomplish it required a five-point turn in Betty’s adjoining, neglected field of birches. Kyle drove the truck and I was on the ground, directing. In the adjoining field the truck sagged into a hole that we had not seen in the waist-high weeds. The trailer hitch scraped the ground. The loaded trailer tipped and rocked. It was a nightmare. Getting unstuck and out of the narrow space between trees and boulders took about ninety minutes and both of us were tired, frustrated, and scared. At the worst of my panic, I called Damon. He did not answer. Kyle and I struggled on.
Just as we were easing out of the field, Damon called back. Were we OK? Did he need to come out? I controlled my desire to burst into sobs. Damon agreed to come out and drive our second load of sheep out of the field. I relayed this information to Kyle.
“Oh, thank God!” Kyle said fervently.
We dropped our first load of sheep at the barn and stopped for a fifteen-minute lunch. It was 2:30 PM. Damon was coming at 3:00. Hurry, hurry.
“Now we just have to get the trailer back into the field,” Kyle observed in a hollow voice.
However, we now knew the location of the hole. Kyle decided to back the trailer in rather than try to turn it around. Again I was out of the truck, directing him away from trees and boulders. Very soon Kyle had backed the trailer beautifully to the ramp where our last sheep were waiting.
We opened the gate. The sheep swept into the bugle. I dragged the gate behind them and they went up the ramp. I pushed Lily, the last ewe, over the doorsill and Kyle shoved the door shut. All the sheep were safely loaded!
Here is Kyle, exulting.
“We are the champions of the world!”
Damon had arrived early, just as the sheep were entering the bugle. “Pretty different from last year” was his only comment — but he smiled.
Damon has been a trucker all his life. He drove the loaded trailer out of the field in three minutes. Kyle and I were speechless.
We took the sheep home, I gave Damon a hug of thanks, and then Kyle and I returned to the field to pick up our tools.
We really had done it. Our system had worked.
The hard day was over.