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Raising Respectful Rams

Originally published in The Shepherd, Vol. 46, No. 2, Feb. 2001, pp 14-15.

Tragically the headline in The Charlotte Observer on November 7, 2000 read, "2 dead after ram attack". Carl Beaver, 84 years old, and his wife Mary, 80, of China Grove, North Carolina were found 100 feet from the gate inside the pasture. Mary was dead and Carl died the next morning.

The Beavers died after the ram apparently turned on them while they were checking the flock in the pasture. The new 250 pound Suffolk ram was tame enough not to be afraid of people, but became very protective of his dozen ewes during the breeding season. The Beavers were taken by surprise. A neighbor said, "It's hard to imagine that you can't defend yourself against a sheep."

But we all know better, don't we? After all how many times have we heard, "Never turn your back on a ram"? That big ram that we have shown all summer is now turned in with some ewes to work his magic on our breeding program. His attitude changes, he has a new sense of purpose, an incensed possessiveness. He is not the same animal and we are no longer the friendly pat or handful of feed, but we have become the adversary. You can see it in his eyes and mannerisms. Being tame means he has no fear at all. Whether he's a massive 400 pound Columbia or a 100 pound tail-wagging Shetland we should be ready, and be on guard. Never, ever trust a ram.

Looking back over the last twenty years of raising a horned breed of sheep, I realize the many mistakes, as well as the successes, we have made in our dealings with rams. Presently we have 7 adult horned rams, all of different, some very rare, bloodlines. Since we sell many replacement breeding rams, we often get the comment "Your rams aren't very friendly." My reply is "Good! That's the way they're trained." When I enter the pen with the rams, I want to see their rear-ends walking away from me, not their faces coming toward me. Let's talk about how best to raise a respectful ram.

Rams need two basic requirements:

  1. Lots of room
  2. Companionship
A ram can do a lot of damage if confined all alone in a small pen. With our very first ram, 'Red Ram Oliver' we made that mistake. His home was a small pen with a small adjacent outside lot; he was in sort of a solitary confinement. Red smashed everything. We even gave him an 'enrichment toy', a rubber tire suspended from the limb of an overhanging tree. He would hit that tire so hard that it would fly in a big arc, coming around hitting him unceremoniously in the rump. This infuriated him to no end, you could almost see the steam coming from his ears and his eyes flash red. His carcass was finally donated to an ethnic group.

For ten years we had a very large wethered Alpine goat, I called him my 'ram humblizer'. While being very tame and gentle with us, this old goat was definitely the boss as far as the rams were concerned. He finally met his demise when one of the horned rams got a horn caught in the goat's collar, choking him to death´┐Ż another lesson learned.

Raising rams from lambs

Overly assertive or bold ram lambs are identified early and a well placed surprise pail of water in the face will usually do the trick. A firm pinch of the nostrils while roughly lifting his front legs off the ground will thwart the boldness of the young ram who is feeling his oats. We must teach visitors not to touch the young ram's head, or knock him in the head for "play", explaining that this teasing can be a trigger for aggression.

Our rams are haltered and lead-broke shortly after weaning. To work rams we run them into a small pen where they can be caught, haltered and tied to a fence for vaccinations, treatments such as de-worming, and to have their feet trimmed. They are not petted or babied. Remember the head rubbing or nibbling at your pant leg are the first signs of burgeoning aggression in the developing ram lamb - not affection. What is cute in a 40 pound lamb is totally dangerous in a 150 pound ram. Those lambs remaining with unacceptable temperaments are sold for meat.

Breeding groups

When the rams are in their breeding groups, fence line feeders are used for feeding, so we never have to enter the pastures. At least one empty pasture separates breeding groups. Or if need be, the separating fence line is covered with a couple of layers of plastic snow fence to reduce visibility between rams. If we need to catch the ram or a member of the group, they are all run into a small pen so we can safely separate the individual.

Co-mingling rams

Come time to remove rams from breeding groups, they are first shorn, then we bring all the rams into a fresh small tight standing-room-only pen for at least 24 hours. Expect much growling, grunting, pushing and shoving. Rams are territorial so these mingling areas should be ones not recently used by any of the rams. Then they are released into a larger area with some nice hay or grass. They will fight until they have reestablished their hierarchy, nothing seems to stop this process. After the period of male bonding they become good buddies again. Our ram pasture has plenty of shade, grass, trees to rub heads on or polish horns and a lean-to shed. Their feeders are close to the fence-line so hay can be tossed easily into the bunk from the outside the fence. I don't normally grain adult rams, it seems to make them very pushy, or as someone wisely suggested, "Grain feeds testosterone". Sex and grain can be triggers for aggression. The rams may need some supplementation by the end of a rough winter, a fence-line trough fills the bill. They always have access to fresh loose salt and unfrozen water. Never pen a ram in solitary confinement for punishment - his bad behavior will only get worse.

Here is a delightful story about the Integration of Rams as told by Margaret McEwen-King of Middletown Farm, Scotland, reproduced here with her kind permission.

Several years ago I put our rams back together on New Year's Day in a small area and to my great distress our best white Shetland ram (lamb) had a coming together with a moorit one and the white one lost a horn. Chatting about this at crook-making class to a retired shepherd (Jim Ballantyne - now sadly deceased) who had spent all his herding days high in the Trossachs of Scotland near Callander, I was told "you didn't pen them up tight enough". "But I did. They were so tight they couldn't take a run at each other - even just a few steps." Again he responded " You didn't pen them tight enough". A Scottish hill shepherd seldom minces or wastes words. "So how tight do they have to be?" I won't print his reply verbatim, but it was to the effect that if they could stand up, then they could lie down, and the important thing was that they got each others urine, sweat and everything else intermingled so they all ended up smelling the same. This process was likely to take a couple of days. "Isn't it a bit cruel?" I got a withering look. "They'll all be alive and uninjured. It's cruel if one or more get killed."

Our pen is about 7 foot 6 inches square and accommodates fifteen to twenty rams, from the smallest Shetland to the big Texels and the giant shambling Polwarth. Two walls, a post and rail fence and lashed hurdles to make up the fourth side. Two buckets of water are placed kitty corner and replenished several times a day. Hay is put in several areas. The smell is awful after a day and a half. We let them out into a bigger enclosed area after about 48 hours to feed at the trough. If anyone starts backing up for a run, back they all go back in the pen. It doesn't take that long and they've sorted themselves out.

Another important point is to integrate all the rams at once. We once made the mistake of bringing back a ram lamb which had been out on loan about a fortnight after the rest had been integrated. Said lamb was quite determined he was number 14 and not 15 in the pecking order and we had to more or less go through the whole thing again.

Seems that the vital thing is that they smell 'communal'.

Once 'communalized', rams truly seem to enjoy being in the company of other rams. Seems like a period of male-bonding is necessary for mental contentment. But alas, this comradery is short-lived and the communalization step must be repeated every time a member is removed and returned.

A ram's instincts run strong, respect him for that; but never, ever trust a ram.

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