Livestock can form relationships

  • Steven Morehouse and Carole Soule walk with the steers Ben and Snuff at the Living Nativity. Courtesy of Carole Soule

  • Eleanor, the donkey, and her sheep friends were inseparable at the Brookside Congregational Church living Nativity in Manchester. —Courtesy of Carole Soule

For the Monitor
Friday, December 22, 2017

The two sheep, Faith and Joy, would not leave the trailer. They huddled behind Eleanor, the Sicilian donkey, who had placed her body between me and them. If I walked around Eleanor, the sheep ducked under her head to Eleanor’s other side. Always just out of reach. The three were working together to keep me away.

We had just returned from a “Living Nativity” event produced by the Brookside Congregational Church and Friends of Stark Park in Manchester. The oxen, two white Scottish Highlander working steers, Ben and Snuff, were from my farm, Miles Smith Farm. I had borrowed, Eleanor, the donkey and the sheep from a farmer in Chichester.

During the event, Mary and Joseph stayed in the manger watching over baby Jesus, while Eleanor, her sheep gang, and the shepherds watched. I stood near the manger, dressed in costume as a Jewish farmer with Ben and Snuff, while the church pastor, the Rev. Eric Jackson, narrated the story of Jesus’s birth over a loudspeaker at Stark Park. Eleanor and her sheep were just a bit jumpy and my Highlanders, totally dressed for the freezing weather in their heavy coats, mooed just once during the service.

I don’t understand the bond Eleanor and the two sheep had, but it was strong. After the event I could not lead the sheep out of the trailer; they wanted to stay with the donkey, Eleanor. Only when I untied Eleanor and lead her out would the sheep cooperate. They followed the donkey right into the pasture and ran off into their shed together.

Not only do sheep and donkeys bond, but cattle develop friendships as well. I’ve seen cows that have been separated for a few months run mooing to each other when reunited. I also have seen cows that hate each other. I cannot keep Clemy and Laverne, two Highland cows, in the same pasture. Clemy will chase Laverne through the fence if I put them together. I don’t know what Laverne does to irritate Clemy.

Farm animals develop relationships just like people. Some relationships are positive, some are not but, as a farmer, it makes sense to pay attention. It was easy to get Eleanor and her sheep to do what I wanted once I figured out they wanted to stay together. While a “time out” might not work for a 1,000-pound cow, figuring out what the cow is saying is what makes farming interesting. You don’t have to be a “cow whisperer” to keep peace on the farm but it helps to listen to your cows and donkeys and sheep.