Flock Behaviour on Sheep-Isle.


Some unscientific observations on a spaelsau flock.  

A close relative to sheep by the latin name "ovibos", shows a distinct herd instinct and they had hardly survived in the arctic districts for millions of years without it.

"Ovibos"means sheep-ox,  which is a far better name, since, what we call musk-ox hasn`t got the gland of musk and consequently no fragrance of the same. It is zoologically closer related to sheep than to the ox. On Iceland they also call it saunaut (sheepcattle).

Sheep-ox in arctic storm,

According to "Grønlands fauna"(p.402), attacking wolwes works often in flock. Quote:"Often they sneak up close to a foraging herd, to suddenly launch an attack directed on a calf. The horrified herd takes flight and if the calf can`t keep up with the herd, it`s doomed. After running some hundred meters the herd stops to form a defence-chain, creating an effective defence with the strongest of the herd surounding the weaker, staying in the midst of the circle. If possible, the herd use a big rock or mountainwall as "back-up".The musk-ox fears most to be attacked from behind by wolwes (or dogs), as they usually try to bite trough the skin round anus, the very tender part of the ox".

After living 6 years on Sheep-isle, the spaelsau-flock forms a strong unit and only in the times of lambing ewes are found  "off-flock" in "nest-shelters", only to return to the flock a few days after.

On this isle there`s no serious predators endangering the flock, as there is in Greenland. Humans only, with their brought-over dogs could be a potential danger, certainly when it comes to two or more dogs.

But on Sheep-isle a lot off seagulls are breeding such as The Greater Black-backed Gull (Larus Marinus), the Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus Fuscus), Hearing Gull (Larus Argentatus) and Common Gull (Larus Canus). Their warning-shrieks, is heard all over the isle, if any approaches land. This signal is well known by the flock.

Arranged experiments with hunting dogs in the autumn, shows clearly that after a short chase when the sheep forms a closed circle, the dogs loses interest in "the bait". The flock normally grazes close together, seldom covering more than a tenniscourt size area, with 1-2 sheep watch-keeping while the others consentrate on grazing.

The isle area amounts to 70 ha.roughly, consisting of a "highland" almost fully overgrown with hawthorne, roses, blackberries etc..The flock roams there mostly in the spring season.The rest of the year is spend in the "lowland", a meadow fringing and gradually merging into the beach. On the beach itself, the flock stays a lot and circulate the isle a couple of times daily, to find newly washed-up seaweed. They always rests in the windside regardless changes in wind and weather and calender. The spaelsau flock is kept at 15-20 ewes in winter. By summer the flock is increased with about 25-30 lambs. Slaughtertime is in late october where all males gets slaughtered, exept one, picked to stay with the flock all of the winter. In mid-november the period of heat starts.                                                             

Thanks to carefully kept pedigrees, its possible to trace most of the ewes in the flock back to 1920-30,- when pedigrees started up. (1912) The spaelsau "mother-flock" was (in 1918) presicely described by Jon Saeland. From the books its evident that the spaelsau on Sheep-Isle are almost all of  Norwegian origin, only in the veins of a few runs 5-10% Icelandic blood. The very pronounced herdinstinct performed by the flock on the isle also show it; since Icelandic spaelsau, in this instinct, acts relatively weak. The size of Sheep-isle compared to that of the flock,  can also have an influence on the flock behaviour.

Flock Behaviour – in the air Common Gull

"Inside the flock, ”a strong pecking-order" rules. Each member knows its place and in the weeks prior to lambing it gives trouble for the young ewes (underlings) specially, whom scarcely dare to leave the flock before lambing. Lambing in the flock might prove lambs to succumb. The spaelsau is quite "motherstrify"- with pleasure they steal lambs from each other, near delivery.

So ,it seems therefore evident, that the instincts of herd and motherhood collides on the isle - the collective contra the single individual .Its therefore very important that young ewes, is psychical ready to leave the flock some days prior to lambing allowing her in "peace`n quiet" to mark her lamb(s), preparing them fore the confrontation with the stress of the flock.

 "Inside the flock", there seems to be an intense silent connection between ewe and lamb(s),and its important for survival. The spaelsau broadly spoken, don`t "baa!", and if there`s a sound its almost a "mmm-m-whisper"! Does the leader-ewe suddenly of some reason signal: "take- off!" - in bad weather,-in darkness-, the flock is up and gone in a split second. If an unexperienced ewe hasn`t her lamb(s) close by, in the confusion arisen by the "take-off", her "waiting-tolerance" is very low and she could be temted to follow the moving flock, before checking her lamb(s).

Opposed to for example Gotland Pelt-Sheep, this behaviour is remarkable. The gotlander, broadly spoken, has no herd instinct; but a visible, active and almost noicy motherinstinct,-a pleasure to a shepherd!.The spaelsau is nearly unnoticeable, maybe a remnant "primal-behaviour", like that of the sheep-ox (ovibos). Its obvious though, that invisibility hardly attracts predators.

04.30 am.
Grazing on the beach

On Sheep-Isle this behaviour might be slightly exessive, since the non-existense of natural enemies. Found there is raven, the greater black-backed gull, crow and sometimes white tailed eagle, - all birds without any consequenses to a self-reliant flock of spaelsau. But on Shetland for example, there is loss of lambs both to the greater black-backed gull and raven, but there the herd instinct is virtually gone, after a century of intensive breeding only on wool.

The spaelsau is a mix of an old Norwegian coast-type, the Feral Sheep (gammelnorsk sau) and an old innland type from Setesdal. Both of these has a very strong herdinstinct - to the sheep, an instinct directly  connected to surviving in the wilderness.

On the isle in the winterseason, its comparatively easy to study the"ranking-order" between members of the spaellsau flock, then roaming without any lambs. Even though the flock-members are only slightly related, they have a both fysical and psychic strong connection; guiding  each one to its place in the flock; when foraging, cud-chewing and at colum-walks on the beach,- always scrutinised by the ewe-in charge.

Leader Sheep with her flock grazing in april (teesdalia nudicaulis)

One could readily associate this pattern of behaviour with the precise formation flying required of the US  B-17 Flying Fortress bombers over Germany during World War Two – a sort of flying, which effectively turned them into a herd in which the survival of each individual crew depended on the skill of keeping a tight formation and the collective protection it offered.

The sheep-ox (ovibos)  in Greenland, will flock, organize themselves and in a moment form a defense-chain.- The Feral Sheep on the Norwegian coast do it.-The spaellsau on Sheep-isle can, maybe not as a mean to survival, but, never the less ,necessary to ease the job of the shepherd!

On Sheep-Isle we trust, tight  flock behaviour to be the primal pattern for sheep-survival, when they live as the Feral Sheep do along the coast of Norway, or as the spaelsau flock on Sheep-Isle. All other kinds of behaviour is raised by human influence (breeding) and is therefore a reduction of the natural qualities.

Ewes learning their offspring low tide grazing in april

With thanks to Gyldendal publishers for permitting to quote from"Grønlands fauna",(Muus,Salomonsen&Vibe.(1981))and for the use of Terry Riley`s drawing