For the last year, I’ve been both a cowboy and a sheepherder. My job at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center has involved caring for beef cattle. During this time, I’ve also cared for my own sheep. I’ve thought it might be interesting (to me, at least!) to compare the jobs – and to compare the American cultural perceptions of cowboys and sheepherders.
Cowboys are iconic in American culture. Forget that many of our cultural notions about cowboys are false (far from the rugged individualist of American mythology, cowboys have always had to work together). Even non-cowboys can wear cowboy hats and cowboy boots!
Sheepherders, on the other hand, are often the antagonists in our Western mythology – cutting fences and stealing grass. Sheepherders are usually immigrants in this country – Scots and Irish, then Basques, now Peruvians and Bolivians. Not many of us are cut out to provide the constant attention that raising sheep requires! And who ever went to a western-wear store and asked for a sheepherder hat or a pair of sheepherder boots?!
Both jobs require considerable skill. Malcom Gladwell has suggested that mastery of any skill requires an investment of at least 10,000 hours. Some of these skills are transferrable regardless of the species – the skills of observation that allow me to detect an unhealthy ewe also allow me to me to detect an unhealthy cow. Some skills require a change in technique and equipment: catching a ewe on open range requires a dog and a leg crook – catching a cow on open range requires a good horse, a good rope, and the ability to use both. Personally, I’ve spent more time learning to use a dog – I’m a better sheepherder than cowboy.
Many multi-generation cattle ranching families once raised sheep. Indeed, sheep paid off the mortgage on many present-day cattle ranches. Some of my friends think this is because cattlemen (and women), by their nature, don’t like sheep. I know differently – most ranching families got rid of their sheep once the ranch was paid off because they knew that sheep took more management time (and expertise) than cows!
Personally, I’ve found that I prefer sheep to cows. I like the daily engagement and challenge of caring for sheep. I like the fact that an overly protective ewe will not try to kill me when I’m handling her lambs (some cows will!). I appreciate the fact that range sheep give me two salable products every year (lambs and wool). I enjoy the flexibility that sheep give me in grazing the small properties that are available to me in my part of the Sierra foothills.
As some of you know, I’m engaged in a project to record my work with my sheep every day for a year (my #sheep365 project). In many ways, this encapsulates the differences between raising sheep and raising cattle. Sheep require my attention every day! As Ivan Doig has written, “To be successful with sheep, even when you’re not thinking about them, you’d better think about them a little.” Cattle, on the other hand, are easier – they don’t require as much day-to-day attention (and they aren’t as vulnerable to predators). Sheep are a 365-day-per-year job!