August 2019 – Our favorite thing about our unusual lifestyle is that we never know what will happen next. One day this week when we were driving home after a day of exploring, we were surprised to see a huge truck with a ramp parked in the middle of the road, blocking the way ahead of us.
It turned out that a bunch of folks were unloading a whole ton of sheep to graze in the meadow!
There were several big livestock trailers parked all around, and the guys began fitting the ramp to the second story of the truck in front of us.
The sheep were stacked in two layers in the trailer!
We heard a commotion in the upper deck of the trailer, and then a sheep headed down the ramp. The rest followed right behind!
We watched in amazement as the sheep came down the ramp. They just kept on coming and coming — dozens and dozens of sheep. Some even jumped when they got to the bottom!
I don’t know what made them jump, but quite a few took a flying leap off the bottom of the ramp.
Then they all trotted around to the quickly filling field to start grazing with all their friends.
The family that owned the herd was very friendly and explained that the sheep had originally belonged to the granddad who had driven one the of the trucks in. His son had purchased the herd from him years ago and continued the family tradition of raising sheep for meat and wool.
We talked a little about the meat and wool markets and were impressed when we learned that they have found a happy wool buyer in the US government. Some of the new military uniforms are going to be made from wool, in a nod to the uniforms and military of yesteryear, and the sheep we were looking at would be providing it!
The herd had almost 2,000 mamas along with all their babies from this spring, and the sheep had been moved from a mountain grazing area down the highway to this area. The family had obtained a sheep grazing permit from the US Forest Service and planned to keep them in these meadows until late October or early November.
We were fascinated listening to all this, but Buddy was much more interested in their dogs. They all made a quick round of introductions.
These were working dogs, and they had different jobs according to their breeds.
The three or four border collies and a red heeler mix were the ones who helped round up the herd and head it in a particular direction. The four Great Pyrenees were the sheep dogs who lived with the herd, 24/7, and protected them from coyotes, mountain lions, and other predators.
Descendants of the original Basque families paraded down the main street of town and a bunch of sheep wagons that the shepherds of the late 19th and early 20th century lived in all summer long were on display (blog post here).
Unlike cattle that are more or less left to their own devices to wander around their grazing areas in the National Forests and on BLM land, sheep are watched over quite closely.
There is a long tradition of the Basques and others living in small wagons or trailers out in the fields with the sheep. Over in Ketchum, Idaho, we had learned that Peruvian sheep herders had had such a big operation there in the 1920s that Ketchum was the second biggest wool producer in the world at the time, behind Sydney, Australia!
Nowadays the shepherding job is hired out. Peruvian shepherds are brought in each summer on special visas to live with the sheep as they graze. Being accustomed to high altitude living, the Peruvians are probably more comfortable living at 10,000 feet for months at a time than many other folks would be, although a new friend of ours in town said there are help wanted ads for shepherds in the local paper. For anyone looking, this could be a cool summer job!
The trailers they live in are very simple and are reminiscent of the historic Basque sheep wagons we had seen in Wyoming. Staying out in the meadows until late October, they must experience overnight temperatures in the 20s for the last few weeks, so the little smoke stacks on the trailers made lots of sense and were reminiscent of the smoke stacks for the woodstoves we’d seen on the Basque sheep wagons!
That night it poured cats and dogs and was very cold. As we snuggled under layers of blankets and piled blankets on top of Buddy too, we thought about the thousands of sheep and the sheepdogs sleeping out in the fields. Brrrr!
The next morning we woke up to the ba-a-a-ah sounds of sheep grazing all around us. What a sight!
We also kept hearing bells! We looked around to see if the shepherds were ringing bells and then realized that a few sheep had bells on their necks, undoubtedly to make it easier to locate the herd when they wandered off.
Buddy was as fascinated by our new neighbors as we were. What a crazy scene this was!
Suddenly, he went nuts and ran across the field in an all out sprint. He had seen one of the Great Pyrenees dogs and was overjoyed!
We had tried to explain to Buddy that these are all working dogs, not playmates, and that they were on the clock. But he figured any dog out in his yard was fair game to be a fun playmate.
Despite their huge size difference, this particular sheepdog took a liking to Buddy and they hung out together for a while.
When we’d first come across the trailer loads of sheep the day before, I had asked the family how the herding dogs and sheep dogs learned their jobs and what kind of training they did to teach them to herd or to protect the flock. The gal I was chatting with shrugged and said, “It’s instinct. We don’t train them. The puppies learn their jobs from the older dogs.”
Well, we soon discovered that the instinct does run deep, even in a mixed breed pup.
The presence of all these sheep began to inspire Buddy’s inner herding instinct. We don’t know his exact breed — undoubtedly he’s a mix of at least four or five different kinds of dogs — but our little pup has a huge talent for running.
Before we could stop him, Buddy decided to try his hand at moving the sheep.
Our jaws dropped as he expertly got them all to head in one direction up the hill. He was really good for a roockie!
Once he had cleared the field of all but a few stragglers, we noticed a Great Pyrenees dog head lying low in the flowers and grass. The dog had watched the whole thing from a front row seat! He seemed as impressed as we were.
Later in the day the flock returned. They were like a giant lawn mower moving across the grass. The field was full of very stinky white flowers, and we hoped the sheep would find them particularly tasty!
One of the Peruvian shepherds emerged from the woods to have a look at the flock. We waved and then he disappeared back into the trees.
I had learned the day before that the Great Pyrenees dogs literally live with the sheep their whole lives.
When they are mere puppies they are put into the middle of the flock with the sheep and the older sheepdogs, and they live all together from then on.
Sure enough, out in the flock we saw three of the Great Pyrenees milling around with the sheep. They barked to each other and all gathered together for a few minutes when they saw us, and they approached us as a group. Once they recognized us and realized we weren’t a threat they disbanded and went their separate ways.
It was fascinating watching these dogs moving among the sheep.
The Great Pyrenees dog that had befriended Buddy earlier broke away from the dog pack and came over to visit.
They sniffed each other and hung out for a while. And then Buddy ran back to our trailer, grabbed his favorite sandal and began running around with it. He really wanted to play with his new friend.
Even though the bigger dog wasn’t really into playing, the two new friends bonded anyway.
What a special encounter this was for all of us!
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- A Basque Sheep Herding Festival in Wyoming
- Camping with Cows and a Cattle Drive up the Highway
- An Elk Herd Crosses the Highway in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley
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