Working the Pens

By the Indian River Pen Crew

*photo credit to Helen Knibb

A handler stands at the post, nervous and excited, waiting for his or her moment. Magically, the packet of sheep calmly trots onto the field to the set-out person and so the run begins.

Well…not really. While the handlers are waiting and anticipating the run, some hot, tired bodies are wrangling very
reluctant sheep into small pens and releasing them at the request of the set-out person. If well handled, the sheep leave the pen willingly, are picked up quietly by the set-out dog, walk up calmly and settle nicely on their spot awaiting what comes next.

Note the ‘well handled’ description. The job of the folks at the top is to provide calm, even packets of sheep for each run.

Every handling system presents unique challenges. They tend to be exposed to the weather and short on water and shade. Most are temporarily set up specifically for the trial. Some trials take the time to run the flock through the set-out system, but many don’t have that luxury. The sheep usually haven’t been in the enclosure beforehand and are naturally suspicious of it. Very suspicious and  very reluctant to get shoved around in these close quarters. They often lose weight and condition during trials when they have been roughly used.

So working the pens is challenging. If Temple Grandin designed set-outs it would be a breeze, sheep would move easily from a large area into gradually smaller enclosures and arrive at the sorting gate. Alas, most pens are a combination of hog panels, page wire, pallets, and black plastic held together with baling twine. Hinges and latches sometimes work but often don’t. Moving the sheep takes patience; yelling, stamping, and hitting usually results in sour sheep. The handler’s dog will pay the price for these.

Pen crews are told the number and combination of sheep in each packet; two ewes and a yearling or two ewes and two yearlings, etc. Sorting these can be challenging, the holding pens often end up with 80% yearlings and only a few adults or vice versa which makes the task even more difficult. It is also important to read the sheep. Most trial managers will check in advance for potential problems - limpers, poor condition, injuries, etc. - and remove them from the mix. However, as the trial progresses the flock must continue to be monitored.

Communication between trial manager, set-out and pens is often a comedy of errors. Walkie talkies are erratic and are often not at hand when needed. The pen crew seldom sees much of the run, sometimes only the lift, so when train wrecks happen on the field they are caught unawares. Stray sheep seemingly appearing from nowhere at the pens; put them back? Let the handler’s dog retrieve them? Send them to the exhaust? Suddenly there are multiple dogs trying to “help” and no way to communicate effectively. And then, of course, trying to keep track of where folks are in the running order. Changes to the run order, including reruns, are haphazardly told to the pen crew. And let's face it, a black and white dog looks much the same as another black and white dog.

The pens are not the place to train your dog. The pens require a calm, experienced farm dog. You don’t have time for any young inexperienced dog shenanigans. By the time you have released a packet, sorted another bunch, and moved them into the pen, it is time for the next bunch to be released. No one will thank you if they are kept waiting or if the sheep run to the set out and start going off like fireworks.

All that said, working the pens is immeasurably beneficial in developing your sheep management and handling skills. Besides, it can be a lot of fun.

1 comment