Just when I think my life is getting boring, I get a phone call from my neighbor.
“We’ve got these sheep down here…”
These things happen when you live on open range. The main road that goes through here is also known as The Stock Drive for a reason. Flocks of sheep work their way through here on the way up to the Pine Nuts and Sierra for summer grazing. Sometimes, the sheepherders just drive them on through and sometimes they’ll stick around and graze the area for awhile. We figure they keep the weeds down, plus we just enjoy seeing them around. It’s kind of annoying when you have to drive to work and they are ahead of you on the road, but I just figure it’s better than fighting cars any day of the week. It’s worst when they are out on the highway. On the back roads, you can just drive slow and work your way through the flock eventually, but on the highway, you have 18 wheelers and school busses that absolutely can’t move because the sheep can fit under their vehicles, so then you’re stuck waiting on the sheepherders to clear the way.
In a strange sort of irony, we have this one neighbor who showed up with a grader and graded off all of the sagebrush around his house. Naturally, the non natives all moved in and took over. His place looks like the Great Mustard Forest, this ugly yellow, unnatural swath in the otherwise unbroken sagebrush. Anyway, the irony is that he told me he was going to shoot the sheepherders if they came on to his property. I said “huh? With your weeds, I’d be inviting them over!” (He seemed truly shocked I would say this.) I also pointed out that this might be bad policy in an open range state. It’s the same reason I can’t shoot my neighbor’s stallions, although in my case, I could conceivably claim that I felt my life was threatened. I can’t exactly see him explaining to the judge that his life was threatened by a bunch of rampaging sheep (Although it might be entertaining to see him try. It would also be pretty entertaining to see him actually threatened by a flock of rampaging sheep, but that would be too Monty Python.). Besides, some of those sheepherders carry big rifles and they might just shoot back!
Each flock consists of around 300-400 sheep, one sheepherder and several dogs. Sometimes they’ll have a donkey along for protection and sometimes they’ll have a large white fluffy dog like a Kuvasz or Pyranees. The other dogs are usually the smaller, short haired types of border collies. All of the dogs are unbelievably friendly to humans which makes it tough to see them sometimes—they don’t appear to get much pampering. There is one old white dog that’s been around with the flocks for quite a few years now. Every time I see him, I long to kidnap him and take him home for a bath, a grooming, a good hot meal and maybe a dose of wormer. He’d probably bite me. They are working dogs and are probably happier than 99% of the cream-puff backyard and underarm dogs out there, but they lead hard and often thankless lives.
A dog is how we had our very first close up sheep encounter. We’d been living here for maybe a year when I went out running with our two border collies. About a mile and a half from home, I lost one of the dogs. Now, anybody who’s owned border collies knows: You don’t find your border collie—it finds you. So I wasn’t exactly worried and continued on home. At one point, I could see him dashing around in the sagebrush about a half mile away and wondered what he was up to, but I wasn’t going to waste the energy to go back and try to figure it out. So I went home and took a shower instead. Only, he still wasn’t home when I came back outside. So I grabbed the binoculars, hopped in the truck and headed out look for him. I found him down by our front gate, very proud of himself, herding a lamb up the driveway. Well, that’s what he was up to!
So I “helped” him herd the lamb down into the yard. I’m pretty sure the dog was thinking that he was doing just fine before Mom came along, but he got the job done in spite of me. I gave it water which it slurped down with gusto. I figured the poor thing was probably still nursing, so I thinned some milk with water and tried the old latex glove trick, but he wasn’t fooled—he knew it wasn’t mama. I had more success just offering him hay, some of which he crunched down at any rate. I figured he’d survive a few hours while I figured out what to do with him. I started by calling the neighbors. They said they’d kept the last sheep that wandered in to their place as a pet until he died of old age. They even named him Herbie or something cute. Not an option… I have a hard and fast rule about not making pets out of animals I might be tempted to eat in the future! Besides, somebody owns this lamb—it’s part of a business, ergo, the owner might just want it back?
Next, I started calling ranchers I know which led to randomly calling ranchers I didn’t know, one of whom finally gave me the name of a bona fide sheep rancher here in the valley. Which explains why the next morning, before heading to work, I wrastled one cute little lamb into the back of the pick-up truck, and tied it up with a dog collar around its neck. On the way to work, I took a little detour to this fellow’s “bummer” pens and tossed the little guy over the fence to join his other unfortunate brothers. Infinitely better than naming him Herbie and feeding him for the next however many years (how long do sheep live, anyway?) because David would never let me turn him into curry once he had a name. In fact, I suspect that even if I named him Lamb Curry, David would have had a fit if I tried to turn him into the real thing!
After that, we didn’t have any strays for a long time. Although, there was that night when a whole flock came wandering through at 2am. They must have woken up cold in the middle of the night—or maybe the flock had a nightmare—and decided to head for warmer or safer climes. They sure startled the hell out of me as they streamed right past the house bleating and baaing. At first I thought it was the strangest windstorm ever. Then I thought it was funny how the wind sounded like sheep and looked out the window to see them flowing past the window—a river of ghost sheep. They wound up bedding down on the flat just above the house and I have some short video clips of the sheepherder bringing them back down to camp at around 5 the next morning. I wonder if he ever wakes up to a silent camp and just thinks “damn sheep!”
Over the years since then, I have come to be aware that there are, in fact, two sheep ranchers who drive through our range. One of them, Ted, lives in this valley and sends his sheep North and East to the Pine Nuts; while the other fellow, Fred, lives in Smith Valley and sends his sheep the other way, West and South into the Sierra. I’m not certain why they don’t just trade ranches (or ranges). Maybe the sheep just need a lot of exercise to grow wool. And what happens when two flocks meet in the middle? Dare I say that would be a real flock-up? I probably daren’t!
So last year in May sometime, I looked out the window and saw a lone ewe hobbling up the ridge by the horse corrals. I didn’t even need a friendly border collie to drive her into the corrals since she was hobbling along on three legs. Poor girl was very happy to find herself with food and water and a safe place to rest among other livestock. Dolly, on the other hand, was pretty certain she was the Angel of Death. Sure Dolly! The cute, white, fluffy, angel of death! Annie just made horrible, ugly faces at her. I guess she figured she had finally found someone smaller than her that she could push around.
So I called Fred and we determined that it, was, in fact, his ewe. You have to understand that Fred is in his 80’s or 90’s, so it was one of those weird conversations.
“This is Sharon Soule. I’m over in Antelope Valley. I think I have your ewe.”
“Well, I don’t know,” in his high squeaky old man voice, “both Ted and I drove sheep through there last week…”
“She has a big M painted on her back…”
“A big M you say?” Long pause. “Well, I guess she must be mine…”
(At this point, I’m thinking, “You guess? Look, you either put a big M on your sheep, or you don’t!”)
“And where’d you say you are?”
“Antelope Valley, off of Eastside Lane.”
“Is that near (some name I’ve never heard of)?”
“No, we’re in Antelope Valley, you know, off of the Stock Drive. You know, Eastside Lane, the dirt section…”
“Well, I guess I’d better send someone out then.”
“We’re on Nighthawk Lane. There’s a sign. You follow it to the end. She’s in the horse corrals.”
“Okay, I guess I’d better send someone out there.” Long pause. “And that’s near (some other name I’ve never heard of)?”
“It’s near Risue Canyon. You know… Topaz Lane, Eastside, the dirt section. Look, let me give you my phone number. That way, your guy can call me and I can give him directions.”
“Okay, that’s a good idea.”
So I gave him my phone number and never heard another thing.
I called him back a couple of weeks later. By this time, the sheep had her own corral with her own water tank and I was letting her out to eat weeds during the day and she would follow me, bleating happily, back in at night to get her own pile of hay. She did NOT, however, have a name—cute or otherwise. This conversation was almost identical to the first one except that Fred felt really bad that he’d forgotten me and would send someone right over and you know where this is headed. Fred really didn’t want his three legged sheep back.
At first, I thought maybe the rest would allow her to heal up, but she never did—must have been a ligament tear or something that wasn’t planning to heal. On the other hand, she didn’t seem to be in a lot of pain—just didn’t want to put weight on it. Still, I didn’t intend to keep her, but the three-legged complication made it impossible for me to sneak her in with the next passing flock and she was just too darned big for me to toss over the fence into Ted’s bummer pens. The phone calls continued, with Fred feeling worse and worse each time and offering to pay for the hay I was feeding her in his high squeaky voice, but never actually sending someone to pick her up. After two months, inspiration finally struck.
“So Fred… why don’t you give me directions to your place and I’ll bring her by?”
Next day, we wrestled her into the back of the pick-up and I drove her over to Fred’s place. He wasn’t in, but the ladies who take care of him and his house were. They helped me wrestle her back out and we left her in his yard, happily grazing the manicured front lawn under the watchful eyes of one rapturous border collie who couldn’t believe his good fortune at having his very own sheep to play with in his very own yard. I suspect that there was a barbecue at the ranch that night, but I don’t dwell on it.
So when my neighbor called in distress because they had found three sheep at their friend’s place, one dead and two alive, I was able to calmly toss a flake of hay in the truck and head down to play the “Fred Or Ted” game. The two live sheep (a ewe and her lamb) were not about to get near enough to be identified, but the dead one had an eartag that identified it as Ted’s, so I dialed him up (because I have both ranchers on speed dial at this point) and told him about it.
He said he would have his ranch manager call me back. And sure enough, I wasn’t halfway up the driveway when he called me. I gave him directions to the place and figured he’d be able to find it the next morning since it was now completely dark. Not so, this fellow. I had made it home, changed into my jammies, and was working on my evening bowl of ice cream when he called back. “Okay, I’m at the first house off Eastside…”
That’s about when I realized it would be easier to get dressed again and drive back down and lead him to the place. And it’s a good thing I did because there was no moon out and the place is pretty far back off of the road and even I had trouble finding the driveway after I had already driven it once myself that night. I was glad to see him come right out, though, because while dishing up my ice cream, I had heard the coyotes yammering out a chorus of “We have found a little lamb,” from the direction where the sheep were hanging out. I was sincerely hoping that we weren’t going to find three bloody little bodies on arrival, but there they were, lamb and ewe, unmolested. Even the dead sheep hadn’t been touched. The coyotes were probably just yelling about sex.
The ranch manager climbed out of his truck along with another fellow carrying a kind of shortened piece of lariat—I guess you can’t exactly use a big loop with a sheep. They intended to somehow capture the two sheep right then and there in the pitch dark. I was kind of surprised to see that they didn’t have any dogs with them as there are no corrals out there. I figured it was a good time to make an exit. I honestly would have liked to see them do it, but I would have felt compelled to “help.” The dog, at least, had been kind enough to not roll around on the ground laughing and pointing at me in my useless efforts at “helping.” These guys probably wouldn’t be so kind. So I headed back home. I could see their lights for some time as I finished my now soupy ice cream. But then they were gone, and I never saw them come back the next morning, so they must have gotten the job done about as efficiently as my old border collie had even in the pitch dark. I admire that kind of ability, but I sure don’t envy them their way of life.