I never really knew much of anything about sheep. Anyone who doesn’t own them think that they are cute, cuddly, woolly cherubs – shepherds know better! You know why, because every shepherd knows that they are too much like people! They can be headstrong, helpless, uncooperative, cause horrendous damage and just plain want their own way! Sound like anyone you know?
These woolen beasts are completely dependent upon the type of owner or manager that they have. Is he brave, selfless, devoted to the flock, or is he uncaring, negligent and cowardly? Under the first, they will be healthy, flourish and thrive; under the second, they will starve and suffer ghastly hardship. Interestingly enough, it is the character of the shepherd alone that determines the health and future of these animals and no one else.
The shepherd must be willing to continually sacrifice his own comfort and needs to properly provide for the flock. He must go to great lengths to locate clean water, the finest grazing, plenty of winter-feed and shelter from severe weather. Without the shepherd sheep are like defenseless orphans, prey to any ravenous beast. It’s no easy task! They need constant looking after. The shepherd must ensure their contentment or the flock will never do well. Their lives are entirely in his hands.
Handled right, sheep enjoy a rather unique role in the livestock kingdom. We’ve probably all seen the cowboy movies where the cattlemen and the sheep men are battling over the grasslands. That’s because sheep, under indifferent management, can overgraze and make the land such a waste area that it is almost beyond repair. Paradoxically, they can also be the most advantageous animal to the land. In time-honored days of old, they were known as ‘those of the golden hooves,’ because of their great benefits to the soil.
Known as ‘nature’s weed eaters,’ these animals consume the largest variety of herbage. They can eat toxic and invasive weeds that other livestock can’t, thereby cleaning up all poisonous plants that are deadly to other grazers. This saves ranchers a ton of money from using chemicals and machines, because even these contrivances don’t guarantee any success in destroying weeds that choke out practically everything else. And this is why they are called ‘those of the golden hooves,’ sheep manure is the finest balanced of any other animal. It is their habit to feed on the rich low lands then rest on the highest grounds. By doing so, they re-deposit the rich nutrients from those lower grounds to the less fertile higher grounds. Rather like a waterfall in reverse!
No other creature takes out so much lethal toxin and puts back so many life-giving nutrients. Sheep manure is a natural slow-release fertiliser, it can be used as an organic mulch, it has low-odour and is lower in nitrogen than other manures, but at the same time it is high in phosphorous and potassium making it ideal for plant growth.
Sure, these fleecy critters are a handful to manage properly. Just finding clean water can be a nightmare! Like any other animal, if they do not get enough fresh water they become weak, tense and restless. If the shepherd does not provide clean water, these creatures will look for any polluted water hole or puddle, putting themselves at risk for parasites and infectious diseases. Keeping a sheep from euthanizing itself is a full time occupation!
Something that many people find rather contradictory is in the disciplining of the flock. It all has to do with them wandering off. Have you ever seen a picture of a shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulders? It’s a shepherds job to set boundaries for the flock. When a sheep consistently, stubbornly strays from his protection, he will break its leg so it cannot drift away. It is now forced to depend totally on the shepherds’ tender care. It takes time, patience and devotion, but a strong bond will be forged that was never there when the sheep had its wandering ways.
Opinions differ rapidly here. I have read that there are those who say this is a myth; no shepherd would do such a cruel thing. But what is more cruel, making sure that a sheep will no longer stray and keep itself out of peril, or is it possible to keep an eye on it 24/7 to protect it? You can take your pick, but this is not the first time that I’ve heard of this type of discipline on a wayward one, and only the faithful can do it – it’s called tough love!