Soay “Scrum” 2015: safely re-introducing breeding rams to the bull pen

One of the few genuine dangers in raising sheep, heritage or commercial, is the non-breeding rams’ aggression towards the (lucky) breeding rams when breeding is over and the breeders return to the full ram group. It’s a pretty simple phenomenon: the breeders smell like ewes and the non-breeders are overwhelmed by hormonal jealousy. The solution is equally straightforward but it requires a certain discipline on the part of the shepherd.

We talk about this issue at length on our main website, but that section of the site is old and we thought a brief refresher might be in order, especially since this year we have a grand total of only two rams who bred and and only five more adult rams who did not.

There are two commonly-used strategies for re-introducing rams safely: You can put all the rams in the biggest possible open area you have on your farm and let the crabby non-breeders chase the fragrant breeders until all the rams collapse, exhausted. This method works as long as none of the breeders gets trapped in a corner where he can be bashed.

We prefer the certainty of a second method, which involves putting all the rams, breeders and non-breeders, in the smallest possible enclosed area you can cram them all into, and I do mean “small.” The goal is to jam the rams together so snugly that none of them can back up at all and get a head of steam up with which to bash another ram. After 24 hours or so crammed in tight, the ewe smell on the breeders has rubbed off on all the rams such that they are no longer able to decide who they should attack out of jealousy. This method resembles nothing so much as a rugby “scrum.” [see note below for definitions]

Our wood-sided sheep shelters served for many years as the perfect enclosures for the scrum; Steve built them very strong and they include ram batter boards on all interior sides. This year, however, the shelters were way too big to use for the scrum. If we had put our remaining seven rams in one of our 10’x20′ shelters, we ran the risk of finding at least one injured or even dead ram the next day.

Safe place to re-introduce Soay rams who have been with ewes

Safe place to re-introduce Soay rams who have been with ewes

When in doubt, fall back on the trusty five-foot Shaul panels. If you put them up against a shelter wall, it only takes three panels. Using one with a gate is a luxury that enables you to shove the grunting rams in without having to hoist them over the panels, always a plus.

White-faced breeder Upton and light phase breeder Sidley in the scrum

White-faced breeder Upton and light phase breeder Sidley in the scrum

The two breeders, light phase Sidley and white-faced Upton, pretty clearly did not appreciate the change in scenery from cavorting with their sweet little ewes to jostling with a bunch of stinky rams, but they survived the ordeal.

Some years we have kept the scrum going for two full days just to be sure all the rams smelled sufficiently alike that they would more or less leave each other alone. This year the seven remaining rams seemed so mellow after one day we decided to spring them from their isolation. I stuck around for awhile to be sure. As you can see, there was a certain amount of grousing and a couple of pretty good hits, but nothing much worse than the ordinary head-butting during rut.

The first time you do this, you may want to err on the side of leaving the rams crunched together for longer than may be really necessary. The key is to get them crammed into a small enough space right away and make them stay there until they calm down.

For now …

“Scrum: a rugby play in which the forwards of each side come together in a tight formation and struggle to gain possession of the ball…” — or — “a usually tightly packed or disorderly crowd” (Merriam Webster)