Sheep herder Sarah Loten takes us behind the scenes of summer pastoral work.
Summer days begin and end with herding sheep on Drover’s Way Farm. It is a rhythm that is as ancient as the sheep farming tradition, dating back to 10,000 BC, when sheep were first domesticated in Mesopotamia. I always feel a kinship with the generations of shepherds who have gone before me, herding and defending their flocks. I’m sure they experienced many of the same challenges and joys that we live with daily, on Drover’s Way Farm.
Here in Lanark County, Ontario, the farming day begins with a call to the ever-enthusiastic Border Collie and help move the sheep. Herding dogs have generations of breeding to make them good working dogs and our current dog lives for these moments. She is a picture of joy and determination, as she sprints towards the fields where the sheep are waiting. The sheep are gathered overnight in yards, which are essentially big, heavily fenced fields designed to protect them from predators.
The sheep have their own “guardian angels” that come in the form of big white sheep guardian dogs. On our farm, we have Pyrenees and Maremma dogs. These gentle giants can turn into torpedoes of fury, if they feel that their family, the flock, is threatened. At the same time, these dogs will gently protect a newborn lamb or a sick ewe, using their body to create warmth or defense, until a shepherd comes along to help. They are an invaluable asset to our pastoral system. I lavish affection on them as they come to get their food from me, in the order that they (not me!) deem is the correct hierarchy. I have little influence on their behaviour but I love watching their instinct and interaction with each other, the sheep and their people. They are my working partners and they know their important place on the farm.
Meanwhile, the Border Collie has been impatiently waiting for a word from me, glaring at the sheep, reminding them to pay attention to the real boss of the operation. Sheep farming keeps a person humble…sometimes I think that I’m quite low in the hierarchy of essential tools at this place! However, a quick command of “Away” or “Come By to Me,” code for circle to the right or left, and the dog is off like a shot, to gather the sheep. She brings them to the gate where I’m standing. Then we begin to drive the sheep out to whatever field we have chosen as the pasture area for the day. On a beautiful summer morning, nothing beats the pleasure of that early morning walk out to the fields, trailing the sheep and dogs with a crook in hand!
We have several hundred acres of permanent and semi-permanent pasture on our farm. Herding and the movement of sheep is vital to maintaining the quality of pasture, grass species, and the amount of growth and feed. It is part science and part art, from years of observation, to know when and where to move the sheep. To keep the sheep and pasture healthy, we create a dance between grass and animals, trying to work with nature as much as possible. Grass growth is rapid in the spring and fall but slows down in the summer. Grass is most nutritious between 4-8 inches and happily keeps growing if we keep it between those lengths. As well, intestinal parasites are a significant challenge for sheep, particularly if the grass becomes too short or too wet. However, sheep aren’t too worried about these details, only about keeping their stomachs full. Like kids with candy, they will keep eating as long as it is front of them! We spend considerable effort fencing them in and out of certain areas, using the dogs to keep them where we want them, much to their chagrin.
Once the sheep reach the pasture for that day, I will call “That’ll Do!” and the Border Collie bounds over for her reward, verbal praise and a big tummy rub. Nothing makes her happier than a job completed and those sheep put in their proper place. I close the pasture gate and we continue our walk to check the quality and growth in the other fields, calculating which fields will be used for grazing next. Some mornings, I almost feel guilty calling this work, these pasture walks that take me through fields of grass, hedgerows, woodland and ponds. On bad weather days, these walks are more onerous, sloshing around in waterproofs, a little less fun. But, it must be done. Checking the grass, the fences and predator patterns are an essential part of the job.
Our permanent pasture is on rougher grazing ground, that could never be used for crops or other forms of cultivation. Sheep and cattle thrive on this kind of terrain as mature animals. We also have cultivated, seeded pasture, with grass and legumes that are especially nutritious for nursing ewes and their lambs. We try to grow grass like this in more protected areas, with significant fencing, closer to the barns for protection and shelter. This way, the ewes can have their babies on excellent grass and can continue to eat well in the earlier stages of the lamb’s growth.
Our biggest challenge to pasturing animals in Eastern Ontario is the pressure of predators, primarily coyotes. Many of our fellow sheep farmers have been forced to house their flocks in barns, some part-time during lambing and others full time, because the losses from coyote kills are just too high to be financially sustainable. Most years, we manage to stay ahead of the coyotes by using a large group of dogs (a dog for every 150 sheep or so), use of page wire and electrical fencing, and by gathering sheep into yards every night. We feel that the advantages of land use, grass, sunlight, fresh air, space and movement outweigh the losses that we incur every summer from predators. Some summers, the dance becomes more intense, to keep this balance. If we start losing more animals than usual, we try to fix the problem through our wits, outsmarting the predator patterns by using different movement, more dogs, different fencing. It is all part of the challenge of shepherding!
The day at Drover’s Way Farm ends, as it began, with a refreshed Border Collie, ready to go, with her everlasting enthusiasm for work. We walk out to the fields, gather and drive. I shut the gate on the night yard with a “That’ll Do,” to finish the job by calling the dog back. As the sun sets, I will usually hear a pack of coyotes howl, reminding us of their presence and their part in this ecology. The dogs will respond back with a volley of barks, designating, yet again, their territory. The lambs call for their mothers in the darkening light, the ewes answering as they settle into their spots for the night. The pastoral cycle continues.