Note: Auburn Arts Association has extended my Shepherd's Year in Photographs exhibition at Auburn City Hall through the end of the year! In case you aren't in Auburn, here are the photos I chose for the exhibit - enjoy!
A Shepherd’s Year in Photographs
My wife and I have raised sheep at some scale since moving to Penryn in 1994. Now based in Auburn, we’ve raised sheep commercially since 2005. Drought and a full-time off-ranch job have meant that we’ve drastically reduced our flock from its peak of 350 ewes – but I still think of myself as a shepherd.
On October 1, 2015, when we put the rams with the ewes, I started a social media project I called #Sheep365. My plan was to post at least one photograph every day (on Instagram and Facebook) for a year, depicting whatever it was I was doing that day in our sheep operation. A shepherd’s year involves day-in-day-out care for sheep, punctuated by milestones like lambing, shearing, weaning and breeding. The photos in this exhibit (two from each month, plus some special shots) are just a small sampling of my project – and my year. Every photograph was taken with my iPhone 5s.
The shepherd’s year, in my mind, begins on the day that he or she puts the rams with the ewes. Breeding season represents our hopes for the coming year. As this exhibit begins, the rams are back with the ewes – in preparation for 2017.
The Object of His DesireOne of our Blueface Leicester rams lost an eye when he was a lamb. Now he tilts his head to get a better look at the ewes!October 2015
Ewes and Oaks
With cooler temperatures and shorter days, our irrigated pastures perk up a bit in October – just in time for breeding season!
This is one of my favorite oaks in one of my favorite pastures.October 2015
The Bachelor Pen
The rams are turned in with the ewes for six weeks in October and early November – then it’s back to their own pasture for the rest of the year. Not a bad life – six weeks of work and all-you-can-eat after that!
Moving through Autumn
We prefer to walk the sheep from one leased pasture to another – it’s much easier than hauling them in the trailer. I enjoy the colors in autumn, and our border collies enjoy the work!
Waiting for the Rain
After four years of drought, sheep and shepherds alike were hopeful for a return to normal winter weather patterns. If you look closely, you can see a hint of green grass under last year’s dead grass.
As a part-time shepherd, I usually check the sheep before work in the morning. I love the light at that time of day – and at this time of year!
One Month to Go
By January, the bred ewes are enormous. We say, “They’re starting to bag up” – meaning their udders are beginning to fill with milk. This ewe gave birth to twins 37 days later.
Being a shepherd – even a part-time shepherd – means we’re outside in all kinds of weather.
I love this sky – looking west towards Lincoln.
Red Sky at Night
During lambing season, we keep a careful eye on the weather. If a storm is expected, we’ll move the flock to a pasture with plenty of trees and other natural shelter. But while stormy weather causes extra work, we pray for rain to make the grass grow.
At some point in late February, we’re greeted by the arrival of a new lamb. We time our lambing to coincide with the onset of green grass – compare this photo to those taken in December!
Our ewes have amazing maternal instincts – this ewe will challenge anyone (or anything) that gets too close to her lamb.
Lambs basically spend their time doing three things: playing, eating and sleeping. I suspect these twins were gamboling through the pasture minutes before I snapped this photo.
Every shepherd with a smart phone has shot at least one video of a “lamb-pede” – lambs chasing each other through the fields.
We use cross-breeding to enhance the health and vigor of our lambs. These lambs were sired by a Shropshire ram. Their mother is a “mule” – a cross between a Blueface Leicester ram and a Border Cheviot ewe. The yellowish tint to their wool is meconium.
The lambs learn quickly (from their mothers) that when the shepherd opens the gate, there’s fresh grass to graze in the next pasture! Sometimes they get a little encouragement from the border collies….
A Good Dog
I once heard an older shepherd say, “I hope one day to be the shepherd my dogs deserve.” Our border collies, like Mo, are more than pets – they are our working partners.
The ewes and lambs graze on irrigated pasture through the month of May. We try to shear them before the stickers get too bad – foxtails and other vegetation can foul their wool.
The ewes all look so clean after they’ve been shorn! Our sheep usually grow about five pounds of wool in 12 months. Shearing a ewe takes our hired shearer about 90 seconds. The lambs will be shorn later in the summer.
A Flying Mule
In the UK, where the cross-breeding scheme we utilize originated, the cross between a Blueface Leicester ram and a hill-breed ewe is called a “mule” – if you look closely, this lamb’s feet aren’t touching the ground. He’s a flying mule!
The Weaning Pen
Depending on the grass, we wean our lambs in late May or early June. Thanks to better-than-average grass growth this year, we were able to wait to wean the lambs until June 20. The lambs go onto irrigated pasture; the ewes get to graze on dry grass after weaning.
A Cool Drink of Water
As the summer temperatures rise, the ewes drink more water. They’ll usually come to the trough after their morning graze, and again before bedding down at night.
After their lambs are weaned in June, and before we start preparing them for breeding again in September, the ewes are grazed in our unirrigated annual grasslands and oak woodlands. During the heat of the day, they shade up under the oaks.
In every August, there comes a day that suggests that summer won’t last forever – that autumn is on the way. This year, we had a cool, misty morning in early August – which made the hot days that followed a little more bearable.
Except for 6 weeks in the fall, the rams are pastured separately from the ewes. This helps ensure that all of the sheep are ready for business once the breeding season commences. In August, we begin feeding the rams some extra groceries – they might forget to eat once they’re with the ewes!
Back to Green
September marks the beginning of our preparations for next year’s lambs. We bring the ewe flock back to irrigated pasture, and we supplement their diet with canola meal and barley. “Flushing the ewes” – putting them on a rising plane of nutrition – results in increased ovulation – and more lambs next spring!
As late summer turns to autumn, we prepare to start another year. Shorter days mean we’re often doing chores before the sun has fully risen.