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Sheep, Stockmanship and Shopping Centers

The title of this blog post seems incongruous, but I hope you'll bear with me. Sometimes, seemingly disjointed  and unrelated ideas rattle around in my head for a bit until something I see - or read or do - brings them together. In this case, a YouTube video about hefting sheep in the Scottish hills helped make a connection between much of what I've been doing and thinking in the last several months.

The seeds for this post were planted during our trip to Bozeman, Montana, in August. During orientation at Montana State University, we visited an activity fair on campus. One of the booths that I visited was the Montana Land Reliance, an agriculturally focused land trust that works with ranchers throughout Montana. I had been familiar with the group (and with their slogan, "Cows not Condos") since working with the California Rangeland Trust in the late 1990s. As I was talking with the young lady staffing the booth, I joked that they needed a "Sheep not something" slogan, too.

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to help with and participate in a stockmanship workshop put on by Steve Cote and Roger Ingram. While the focus was largely on handling livestock (cattle, mostly) in a low-stress manner, we also talked about how livestock that are handled well have fewer health and reproductive problems, and how they'll actually stay put on a particular piece of grazing land. Steve Cote stressed that learning stockmanship is a lifelong process - that a good stockman (or woman) is constantly asking questions of the livestock (in terms of behavior and response) and trying new approaches based on these "answers."

Finally, today I found a link to this outstanding video on Facebook:

Unlike our part of the Sierra Foothills, sheep have been grazing on these Scottish hills for thousands of years. Each flock of sheep knows which part of these unfenced hills is its native home - in some respects, they place themselves just like Steve Cote and Roger Ingram taught us about placing cattle on the range.

Late in the video, there were two statements that finally tied these ideas together for me. One of the speakers says, "Sheep are looking after the landscape," adding, "Sheep keep people in these remote hills." In other words, sheep grazing maintains the grass-covered hillsides, and sheep production supports remote small communities throughout Scotland.

Admittedly, we don't have a thousand year tradition of grazing sheep in the Sierra foothills. But grazing animals are a vital part of our rangeland landscapes in California and elsewhere in the West. Rangelands, according to my sheepherder definition, are too hot, too cold, too steep, too dry - too something - to support cultivated agriculture. And these lands can be incredibly productive - as wildlife habitat, as watersheds, as open space. Just as well-managed grazing by sheep and cattle can help maintain the productivity and health of these lands, ranching as an economic activity can help keep these lands from turning into housing tracts and shopping malls. Several weeks ago, I thought of a new slogan: Sheep not Shopping Malls!

I'm under no illusion that the small annual rent I pay to graze the 20 acres of irrigated pasture and 250 acres of annual rangeland keeps our landlords from considering offers from real estate developers. Nonetheless, the fact that our landlords love to see sheep grazing on their hillsides means something. The fact that there are still a few of us in this part of Placer County who raise sheep and cattle at a commercial scale means we still have a culture of stock-raising. Yesterday evening, I sold a ram to the children of a fellow ranching family - they raise cattle, but his kids are learning about sheep. My own daughters, by watching us work since before they could walk - and helping us work once they could - are learning skills that date back to the first shepherds in the Scotthish hills.


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