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The Reluctant Shepherd

By Laurie Ball-Gisch

The Lavender Fleece

3826 N. Eastman Rd.

Midland, MI 48642




I usually introduce my husband Daryl to farm visitors as my “reluctant shepherd” but it is obvious that after six years, he now takes as much pride in our flock and farm as I do.

This article is dedicated to my husband, and also to Willie, my father-in-law, who have worked selflessly to build and maintain the infrastructure that has become our farm.

I have discovered that most new shepherds also have a “reluctant shepherd” (be they man or woman) behind them. This is also dedicated to all the other reluctant shepherds out there-be they husbands, wives, partners, parents, friends, sisters, brothers, or children. To each of them a big hug and a big thank you for loving the shepherd or shepherdess in their life enough to not only tolerate, but also to support, their dream of raising sheep.

Identifying Reluctant Shepherds

Our breed of sheep-Icelandic-seems to have great appeal to those who have never raised sheep before. Just like they won my heart, these beautiful sheep continue to attract other modern homesteaders into the romance of raising a “few” sheep (just as other breeds attract their new shepherds). Often it is a woman who first contacts me about visiting our farm and flock. And always, when the couple finally comes to visit our farm, I will soon see the man pull my husband aside, and they will start taking a walk in another direction. I overhear snippets such as:

The reluctant shepherds, husband Daryl and father-in-law Willie, at the author's 'Lavender Fleece,' with two young shepherdesses in training.
The reluctant shepherds, husband Daryl and father-in-law Willie, at the author’s ‘Lavender Fleece,’ with two young shepherdesses in training.

“How much is this really going to cost me?”
“How much time do you really put into this operation?”
“How much fencing do I really have to have?”
Or, “What kind of shelter do these sheep need?”

It’s usually pretty easy for us to tell which new sheep enthusiasts have reluctant shepherds with them; the reluctant shepherds are the ones who stand back with arms folded, observing. Those lucky enough to have a partner like mine will find their own less-reluctant shepherd soon eagerly learning how to give a shot, or trim hooves, and asking lots of questions. These are the people who usually eventually decide to buy sheep.

To soon-to-be (often with accompanying reluctant) shepherds, my husband tries to honestly explain the role he plays on our farm. He usually says first off that the sheep are mine and that I run the farm. And I do in all honesty run the day-to-day operation myself.

But the reality is that both he and his father Willie have been the unpaid labor that have put up the fences and remodeled, repaired and built the buildings, shelters, and feeders for my flock.

Starry-Eye Dreams…

Farming and shepherding are ongoing processes; the reality is that the work of farming never ends. So it is important to know yourself, your partner, your family and your resources well enough to know whether or not this lifestyle is something that you will enjoy-and ideally, enjoy together.

One of our favorite times is on a Saturday morning when Daryl and I can go out and work together, whether we are filling water troughs and hay feeders, repairing some fencing, or have a busier agenda of trimming hooves and deworming. It gives us a chance to work side by side, to see and handle the sheep up close-this is where we have some of our best “life” discussions.

When somebody expresses interest in getting a starter flock of sheep from us, we invite them to come to one of our major work days-usually shearing day. We really want to make sure folks have a chance to have their hands on the sheep before they purchase them. So we show them how to handle sheep, how to trim hooves, give injections and drenches and how to check membranes for anemia, etc.

I often jokingly warn these first time visitors that if they hear me fussing at my husband, not to worry-that taunting and yelling at each other is part of the fun of it!

One of the biggest drawbacks to sheep-raising is that you can no longer spontaneously decide to take a vacation. Time away from the farm requires finding somebody appropriately trained to come and tend the animals. So if you have a partner who likes to travel and wants your company, be sure you can find somebody local to help farm sit so you can get away.

There are certain work days and work seasons to shepherding that will require more of your time and attention. Hopefully your partner and/or family can accommodate the necessity of you spending more time in the barn during lambing season, which is probably the most exciting and stressful time of the year. They must get used to the almost manic-depressive highs and lows that their shepherd will experience. The elation and joy of finding healthy and active newborn lambs will inevitably be offset by the streaming tears of sorrow and despair over the unexpected discovery of a dead sheep. [Note to the reluctant shepherd: at the first sheep death, please don’t tell your shepherd(ess) “where there are live stock, there are dead stock.” It may be true, but doesn’t help in times of great emotional stress.].

One must be careful in handling sheep-on a farm accidents will happen. The popular crime scene television shows, like CSI, often cause me to chuckle to myself that if one of the investigators had to examine my dead body, they would find such unusual breaks and bruises that they would probably think my life had been either extremely violent or rather twisted! Most of our sheep are horned, and sometimes when straddling a feisty lamb, those horns leave interesting polka dot bruises on the inner thighs and up and down the shins. This past year was particularly accident-prone for me, and my skull would probably reveal some evidence of blows that my survivors would be hard put to explain.

The welt that never went away over my left eye was caused by me walking into an iron gate “hanger” at the local feed store.

Soon after, Daryl and Willie had set up a wonderful pulley system for weighing the sheep. At one point, a sheep lurched forward while I was wrapping the sling around its belly, and I banged my right temple into the pulley.

One shearing day I tripped and sprained an ankle and broke a pinky finger!

One careless day I turned my back on the rams to position a bucket, and ended up with a sprained ankle on the other foot.

Sometimes in trimming hooves, one can slip and gouge a hand pretty badly (always wear leather gloves); handling loaded needles for injections is a time of caution; your partner won’t like receiving an accidental dose of Ivermectin.

“Reluctance” Doesn’t Rule Out “Dedication”

When we first moved here, our farm had a sadly dilapidated three-story dairy barn. It was no longer usable for hay storage and I was nervous about having the sheep in the bunker, not sure the structure wouldn’t collapse on them.

We talked about many options for the barn. I couldn’t fathom how we could afford to have it dismantled or how we could afford to build a new barn. Daryl’s father, Willie (at the time 77 years old), declared one evening that “Daryl and I can take down the barn and rebuild it.” I couldn’t begin to imagine how the two of them could do this without major equipment. But take down and rebuild the barn they did!

One side benefit that this "reluctant shepherd" received was a trip to Iceland courtesy of The Lavender Fleece. In October 2004, Daryl flew to Iceland to bring back a new Icelandic sheepdog puppy and he enjoyed a week visiting and helping at the farm of Brynhildur Inga Einarsdottir and her reluctant shepherd, Sibbi. Photo by Brynhildur Inga Einarsdottir.
One side benefit that this “reluctant shepherd” received was a trip to Iceland courtesy of The Lavender Fleece. In October 2004, Daryl flew to Iceland to bring back a new Icelandic sheepdog puppy and he enjoyed a week visiting and helping at the farm of Brynhildur Inga Einarsdottir and her reluctant shepherd, Sibbi. Photo by Brynhildur Inga Einarsdottir.

Willie spent about a week removing all of the old siding, with most of the boards well over 12 feet long.

When the siding was off, he then removed the original wooden pegs that were holding the foundation and structure together.

After the pegs were removed, he and Daryl hooked up a chain around the vertical beams and with our truck, pulled the beams out one by one, collapsing the barn in stages. It was quite a sight to watch those two taking down the barn together and reducing it to rubble.

What greater fun for a man and his son than to deconstruct an old barn?

They then sorted through all of the wood, setting aside the best lumber and posts to use for rebuilding the “new/old” barn. Both of them spent countless hours sifting through the debris, hauling aside the good wood and burning what couldn’t be used.

The biggest expense in rebuilding the barn was the new lumber for the doors. I think the grand total cash outlay for the two story new/old barn was about $5,500 and the following summer they built a large addition on the side for another $3,000. Estimates to build a structure of this size new would be roughly $40,000 (materials alone).

The sheep go into the lower “bunker” and there we have lambing jugs, a large dividing gate for corralling the sheep and new windows and electricity to run lights and fans in the summer’s hottest weather. Our sheep certainly don’t require barns, but utilizing the old structures that were on our farm brings us great satisfaction. We receive a lot of positive comments from the “locals” who tell us how much they have enjoyed seeing us rebuild the farm into an attractive landscape for all to enjoy.

Laughter Amid Tears

In spite of the ups and downs and a few injuries along the way (usually my own fault) do I still love shepherding? As Willie would say: “Hell, yes!” And should my body be found someday, please, somebody refer the CSI investigators to this article to save Daryl from being arrested. Somehow I don’t think the defense “reluctant shepherd” would hold up in court!

If you are the reluctant shepherd in your household, be prepared to see some crazy things in your new “sheep” life and don’t question it, just let that crazy shepherd(ess) you find yourself involved with do what he or she has to do.

My husband came down one morning to see me flying across the field about 6:00 a.m. on a warm summer morning, in a white cotton nightgown and rubber muck boots. As I looked out the back door at sunrise I was shocked and dismayed to see one of the rams was lying cast (on his back, all four legs straight up in the air) in the middle of a weird circle of four other rams surrounding him.

My initial reaction upon seeing him was “Oh great, Daryl’s going to have to move this dead ram before he goes to work this morning.”

For some reason this spurred me to action and I hurried out there thinking perhaps I was going to find him before he was dead. Sure enough just as I reached the ram, he opened one eye, looking at me like, “where have you been?”

I quickly grabbed him by the horn and flipped him over. He stood up, shook himself off and wandered over to begin grazing. One of the other rams got up, ran over and butted him in the side. All I could think was that they must have done a “ram tipping” to try to take over his dictatorship of the ram group. Imagine what the morning commuters on our busy road thought to see me in the middle of a field at that time of morning, in my white nightgown!

A shepherdess friend reported also running out of her bedroom in the wee morning hours after having looked out the window to see her Great Pyrenees carrying off a lamb. She was in a negligee and barefoot. She was also 8 1/2 months pregnant. Luckily they live more remotely than we do.

So to all those reluctant shepherds out there who suddenly find their “other half” obsessing over photos of sheep and walking your landscape plotting fencing layouts, I want to say again, thank you for tolerating these obsessions.

In addition to finding himself a partner in shepherding, Daryl Gisch has also discovered that his request of “we’re only having two dogs” has resulted in The Lavender Fleece expanding to include three lovely female Icelandic sheepdogs. In fact, at press time, there still may be a few puppies left from the summer 2005 litters. Please contact Laurie immediately if you are interested in adding a quality Icelandic sheepdog to your family and farm. sheep! published an article about the Icelandic sheepdog in the May/June 2003 issue.

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