It started, as many crazy adventures do, with a text. Sitting alone one evening while my wife was with family, the familiar buzz: “I tagged you in a Facebook post”.
So, of course, I dutifully opened Facebook and clicked the notification bell. I assumed my wife, Molly, had tagged me in either a funny post, or something so ludicrous I would know it was a joke (Full A2A2 heifer! Free!). But instead I saw a series of pictures - sheep. My weak spot. The post explained the animals needed homes; a death had left a family responsible for two herds of sheep and goats.
And they were in rough shape. They were the very opposite of nourished: most had not been sheared this spring, or maybe for years; hooves could be seen, they had not been trimmed. Breeds were unrecognizable: maybe a few Icelandic to add to our herd? Suffolk? Mystery box breed? Certainly Molly had to know I would reach out, and I did. I asked breeds, number, price. The answer was swift-no idea on breeds, take what you can, free (with the request they not go to butcher).
The next morning we headed north to meet the new owner, check out the sheep. Oh how naive we were. We could identify any Icelandics (or a Finn? Are we that lucky?), take some ewes and increase our herd. We had a pen to isolate them. A logical, sensible business decision. We crept down a barely road, spying animals through the trees, bracing ourselves for something bad.
But it was worse. One group ran free, most had so much wool they were giant moving mops. One lamb tried in vain to fight through the layers to nurse. The rest were confined to a very small pen, hog panels tied together. Logs, pallets, beer bottles lay scattered in the pen. The herd was a mix of tall, horned goats-towering over the sheep; several large sheep with full curls, medium sized rams, large and small ewes, and lambs. All were much too thin, and they were scared. They packed themselves as far from the humans as possible.
Molly and I looked at each other: “You better go get the horse trailer.” I agreed. She would stay and try to help trim hooves, assess health.
On my return I found more people had arrived to help. Some brought hay, one also had a trailer, but most were friends there to help. We decided quickly that separating ewes, rams, and lambs would be a lost cause. The animals would not come near use, despite bribes of grain, they ran in a mass headed by the goats. When they reached a hog panel wall, they smashed in, then turned and headed back regardless of what was in their way. We rigged up a chute and got to the side door of the trailer, and then myself and a few brave souls (many who had never dealt with sheep) waded in.
We ended up with a full trailer: 18 rams, ewes, lambs. Genders mostly undetermined, breeds a mystery, and the only certain thing is that these animals needed nourishment. Not just food, but time and care.
It has now been 2 months since we rescued the sheep (and 1 goat who soon found a great new home).
Five rams left us to improve pasture health in Northwest Montana. Three ewes moved on to restart a local herd. And we are left with 8: Rosa and her lamb Rocket, Yama and her lamb Henrietta, ZuZu, Ida. Last but never least Sue and Brownie. These two judge our every move. It is painfully obvious from their reactions when we throw hay, or move fast, that they were more than just underfed. It is easy to see those beer bottles were most likely propelled at these girls. But slowly, slowly, through patience and care, they are getting better. All but those two will eat from our hands. They've all been trimmed, sheared, dewormed, vaccinated, vet checked. They are heavy, the lambs are fat. They are no longer undernourished. They are safe, well fed. The ideal nourishment.
Most evenings, barring the driven snow, Molly and I sit quietly with them in their pen. It has become a ritual of peace for them,for us. One beautiful Montana evening we ate pizza as they milled around.
It is poetic that we need that time. For all the work, the sweat, the emergency room visit (one ram’s kick to Molly’s head), the feed, the bills, we needed this. We need them. Animals bring us joy, peace, a sense of place. For in the end, we have found they nourish us as much as we could ever nourish them.
Jon Moore, of Hoof and Paw Farm, raises Icelandic, BFL, and Painted Desert sheep on a small farm near Helena, MT. They offer raw fleece and prepared fiber.