From tending sheep to tending students

I grew up in the small town of Minnedosa, but my parents are originally from Northern England and emigrated to Canada just before I was born. I come from a long family line of sheep farmers and sheepdog trainers. My grandfather and uncle would compete in sheepdog competitions around the world, so naturally I would get them to show me the ropes every time I went to visit them. When I turned 15 years old, I decided I was ready to take on the family challenge of sheep farming and by the next year, I had purchased my first flock of sheep. I still have them to this day! They enjoy a quiet life out on the farm and every spring we get some new additions to the flock.

I remember distinctly the warnings from my dad when I approached him with the idea. I had spent weeks preparing pie charts and graphs of how it would work financially, sheep shearing classes, how much land area they would need, and fencing practices. I can only imagine what went through his head when I asked him, and I think he only agreed because his ideas are just as crazy as mine. Thick as thieves, we convinced my mom and a year later, I had fenced a couple of fields and purchased twelve ewes and a ram. I had absolutely no idea what I had gotten myself into, a feeling I am sure most host families can relate to, but it was even better than I had imagined it would be.

Dont get me wrong, there were many ups and downs. My first ram was an absolute terror. My entire family fell victim to his playful shenanigans at some point or another. When you ventured into his enclosure, you had to make sure you had your running shoes on and that the laces were tied tight. My first spring soon arrived and with it I had twelve perfect little lambs. This was an amazing bit of luck and I secretly think the sheep were aware that this was my first time and they should go easy on me. Afterwards, it was fair game! There were nights I would set up a cot in the barn to keep an eye on a sheep that was close to delivery. Pet lambs, lambs where their mother had trouble feeding all of them or decided that this was not the lamb for her, would have to be bottle fed every 3-4 hours. We called them pets because they would follow us around the farm and related more to our dog than to the other sheep.

Despite all of the challenges, the late nights, the hard work, and the frustration, I have learned more from my small sheep family than I thought was possible. Many of these lessons I bring with me into my role as a Relationship Manager as I tend to my flock of students and host families.

  • Lesson # 1: Patience. Sheep like to take their time, they run around, get lost, and are easily distracted. Even though they often can’t understand what I am trying to tell them, they are incredibly smart and intuitive creatures. Time and time again I have underestimated this little flock and I am no longer surprised to see them running across the field after finding a hole in my fencing. I believe the same can be said for our students. Patience is very important as they can often sense our frustration and disapproval when they don’t understand.

  • Lesson # 2: Nothing teaches you responsibility like looking into the eyes of an animal that depends on you. I found this responsibility scary. I still do! What helps the most is having people around that I trust to reach out to for help and support. Even if it is just a friendly ear to listen to my concerns or to get a second opinion. My uncle was always there to give me feedback or advice. Even when that advice was tough to hear, I found he made me a better sheep farmer in the end.

  • Lesson # 3: Tend to the flock, but care for the individual. It is important that everyone has food, water, and shelter, but each one has different needs as an individual and that requires you to be observant and persistent. Every student that we encounter is unique and each hosting experience is different from the last. I have learned to be accepting of the differences among our students and to expect that not everyone will adjust right away.

  • Lesson # 4: Generosity in the eyes of sheep is not about the amount of money that you put into it. It is to be generous with your time, with your space, and with your compassion. Similarly with a student, small displays of generosity, like providing their favourite brand of comfort food or leaving a welcoming note in their room, goes a long way to making each student feel special and cherished.

  • Lastly, the biggest lesson I learned was the lesson of stubbornness. Moving a sheep that does not want to move is nearly impossible. They will lean against you with all of their immense weight and refuse to take even one step forwards. How often do I get stuck in my own mindset (or field in the case of a sheep), unwilling to budge or see a different perspective. Most of us just want to feel heard, to have our worries acknowledged, and to break down that communication barrier one heartfelt conversation at a time. It is a vulnerable process to put yourself out there, or venture somewhere you have never been before. Whenever I feel hesitant about making the first move or taking that one step forward, I remember the days of moving a sheep from one pasture to another and that sometimes, you just have to have faith that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence!





    – contributed by Sarah Dalrymple, RM in Winnipeg