Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Basque Shepherds

As the snow gently sets in this time of year, I tend to fret just a tiny bit about my sheep. But in all honestly, there isn't a need for worrying. My fretting is fairly ridiculous considering how hardy these sheep really are. They have handled themselves for thousands of years on the harsh and unforgiving island slopes of Hirta, off the coast of Scotland. Much like the shetland ponies, these sheep had to survive and fend for themselves in deep blizzard conditions for months at a time with little to no food.
But still, being of the female gender - my instinct is to worry needlessly. I keep all of my sheep hog fat with an over-abundance of high protein alfalfa, and plenty of shelter to get out of our sloggy slushy winter weather. They don't have to work for anything around here, as they've got it made.

And alas, I will happily admit that I have a "lazy herders" flock. Soays are a tough, wild primitive sheep that do not require most of the modern tending of a normal shepherds flock. A list of their eases would include: no shearing, no tail docking, minimal castrating (most of my customers like the "rocky mountain" delicacy), no help in lambing (these sheep are like deer, if you mess around with a newborn lamb for too long they will abandon it), and no need to put them into a pen or barn for lambing either - they prefer lambing in the open outdoors, resistance to several varieties of parasites, resistance to hoof rot in soggy conditions, ect. The list of their positive traits goes on and on.

But the only negative pitfall is that they are indeed a WILD sheep. Sorting and handling has to be very quiet and kept to a minimal in order to avoid sending their stress levels through the roof. I've never seen anybody work them with a dog yet, (as it is reputed that they will scatter into a million different directions all at once if they are slightly pushed). I know from first hand experience that if anyone approachs them in too fast of a manner they will bounce off the fences, and sometimes over or underneath them. Most of the time the only way that I can coax them up close enough to take pictures is if I have a bucket of grain handy. These guys take a whole different approach than most domestic sheep operations.

Which brings me to some interesting pictures that I found at a historical site. These are some photos of Basque herdsmen and their equipment in Nevada. They herded the white wooly domestic breeds of sheep, ramboillet and merino - a much more difficult task to manage than my little primitive brown hairies. Above is a photo of a couple of wool wagons loaded up and ready to go to the market. The photo is from back in the 1920's when they still used horses to haul loads into town. I can imagine the amount of work it would take for herdsmen to shear that many sheep in order to make some huge loads like that. It makes me really glad that I don't have wool sheep....they are a tremendous amount of work.

Another 1920's photo of a herdsman who tended his flock through the harsh Nevada winters. The sheep wagon is the only shelter in sight. It's not uncommon for temperatures to dip to twenty below zero in the high desert, so it is a testament to the rugged tough herders who could survive camping for months at a time in the unforgiving land.

A desolate and lonely life. With only your horses and dogs to talk to, it had to be fairly difficult tending to the sheep year round.

Another photo from the 1920's. It's hard to imagine having everything you need in a little vardo wagon. I feel very fortunate to have a house that I can go into after I feed the sheep, and have a full cook stove to prepare my meals on and get my boots warm by a big blazing heater. If a shepherd ran out of supplies back in those days, that was just tough luck - you go hungry or do without. They had to make a go of what they had packed 6 months in advance. Most of the time they were miles away from civilization. In today's world, we'd just pick up the cell phone and hop into the truck and head to town for what we need.

A more modern photo of a herdsman tending to the flock. I honestly can't imagine looking after that many sheep. It would be a huge job. Cutting out the sick and doctoring, trying to keep them herded together, fighting off predators in the wide open range. It would be difficult. As a side note: See how the sheep are marked with red paint? I tried to mark my sheep in a similar fashion for the past couple of years or I.D. - but they smeared it everywhere all over the pen and fences. Not to mention my paint wasn't legible upon brown hair....

A vardo surrounded by sheep. I don't think that I could keep our little guys together like the sheep above, even if I tried... They would scatter on the range like the wind.

I found this very interesting. This is a newer photo (1970's) of a ewe sled. When the ewes are about to lamb (or have already lambed), the herder will catch them with the long hooked crook and load them up onto the sled. The ewes are then strapped down with their feet in the air to immobilize them. There is a little hole on the sled right behind the ewes head to put the lamb into, if she's already lambed out. From there, the horse will pull the sled over to a shed or a little pen so that the herder can unload the ewe and lamb so that they can bond to one another without the flock getting in the way. I had another photo of a lamb sled on here that better illustrated the hole for the lamb to set into, but I accidentally deleted it...rats.

The one thing that I will say about the Basque herdsmen horses, is that they had to be multi-functional partners. They had to be saddle broke to herd the sheep across the land, and when they weren't under saddle they also had to pull the wagons and the ewe sleds. There was also an array of miscellaneous supplies and other stuff that needed to be packed into camp as well.

A modern approach to herding. Using a lead goat for the flock to follow. I've personally used this method with an older wether goat to get the young yearling lambs to follow. It works great! Goats can be a great asset to have around, as not only do they direct the sheep, but if you have a nanny goat you can also have fresh goats milk every morning for breakfast.

As I stated before in the prior paragraph above, Basque horses need to be broke and willing to do several different jobs. I only own one horse that *might* *maybe* - be willing to haul a greasy, wooly, smelly, wiggling fat sheep around with only a halter for control. Needless to say, I'm not going to go run out and try it anytime soon....

But there are a few perks to being a lonely herder. Look at the beutiful places they get to ride! This herder went into town for supplies, and he's heading back to camp with groceries. The wildflowers and mountain meadows are simply gorgeous!

A shepherds paradise. If you look really closely, you can see the herder to the far right underneath the trees. It would be worth all the misery of a crummy winter just to see the beautiful mountain ranges during the springtime.

For more information on the Basque herdsmen, these sites have some interesting history:

A great video of the mysterious and almost lost language of the Basque people, "Euskara":

An interesting family blog:

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