Life lessons from sheep

It’s not all ‘follow the leader.’

 

Beth Raboin is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She works on ranches throughout the West.


As day turned to dusk last fall, I stood on a far-flung reach of Montana’s Little Snowy Mountains. Upslope, 1,200 sheep have tracked through wet snow. Downslope, an ewe bleats to say she’s been left all alone. I’m in the middle between that lonely ewe and her flock. My clothes are wet. My feet are cold, my little lady toes lost in cavernous men’s overshoes.

I never expected to be a shepherd. The overshoes are on loan from the shepherd’s wagon I’ve occupied since the shepherd got called back to Mexico. That was just before the big Fourth of July picnic. The ranchers assured me that the job was easy. If I break a sweat, they said, I’m doing something wrong. 

“Just bring the sheep to and from water and make sure nobody dies.”

A flock of sheep are ushered down a county road in Western Colorado.
Paige Blankenbuehler

To and from water, I have managed. The “nobody dies” part — not so much. Back when the potentillas still shed their yellow flower petals across the backs of the lambs, one of those lambs died in my lap. Soon enough, I knew what it meant when the usually all-white guard dogs showed up in camp with pink heads. They’d been eating what coyotes or bears had left behind.

But tomorrow morning, finally, the ranchers will be up to move the sheep down to the flats for the winter. I’m impatient to leave, for my sake and for the sheep. This fresh snow insults us because it fell too late, sprouting nothing but slick mud here in the wake of an unyielding drought. We have been spared from fire, but the sheep still have to eat, and weeks ago the hillsides had fallen to dust.

The pastures are inadequate and the sheep underweight, and now, what is this lone sheep doing? We just need to get up that slope and through one lousy gate, and once we do, we’re saved, we’re free, we’re done.

I have learned through trial and error, and more error still, that if I leave a sheep to her devices, she will eventually rejoin the flock. Through shepherding I have also learned about myself. I’ve learned that no matter how I push down impatience, impatience has a way of sneaking up on me. I call on my best dog, Pinto.

“Pinto, allá!”

Pinto must be feeling impatient, too. Rather than circle that girl back to her flock, he chases her halfway down the long, steep slope. My other two collies, Roja and Lechuga, race towards mouthfuls of wool. I slip and slide in my size 11s down into the chaos I created. 

The sheep’s sides heave as I call off the dogs. I can no longer see or hear the flock above. One impulsive act has a way of snowballing; more impulsive acts are sure to follow. I’ve seen a real shepherd do this trick. If a sheep is going where he doesn’t want her to go, he’ll throw something into her path. Sometimes that’s enough to turn her. I pack a snowball. I throw that snowball.

Thwack, and the snowball explodes against her heaving side. That sends her wheeling down the mountain, and I turn my back on her. I walk away. I leave her there to die. Nobody will be back through until spring. Without her flock, this sheep is as hopeless as I am helpless.

I will think about that sheep often through a restless winter. In this way the winter runs long. But like the rest of the sheep, I will be one of the lucky ones to make it through to the other side, to lambing season.

Lambing season for me means a few thousand lambs all born in one place in a span of a few wild weeks. This time, my job is to make sure the newborns nurse. When I see a lamb struggling, I climb right down next to her. I kneel and press my shoulder into the mama’s side to settle her in. With one hand I guide the newborn’s mouth, and with the other hand I hold the newborn across my chest as it tries to rise up on wobbly front legs. Often this is first time that the still-damp lamb tries to stand up.

Kneeling, I breathe into the mama’s heartbeat pushed tight to my shoulder. I feel new strength flow into the lamb, into this smaller, quicker heartbeat held here in my hand. And finally, I rest in knowing that we are all, and always have been, exactly where we need to be.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.