Monday, May 29, 2017
Taking Sheep to the Mountains
Sheep and cattle - and their herders - have always followed the green forage. In my part of California, this traditionally meant that the livestock were moved north or upslope in the spring and summer months. My friend Bob Wiswell, who still ranches in Lincoln, tells stories of riding a mule through Auburn, following a band of sheep to the mountains east of Foresthill. My friend Pat Shanley, who recently passed away just shy of his 97th birthday, recalled hearing the sheep bells coming up Baxter Grade in the 1920s - the Basque sheepherders always gave him an orphan lamb to raise as they came through Auburn. And my friend Karri Samson gave me an article several years ago that described how ranchers used to ship their lambs by rail from a stockyard on the west side of Donner Pass.
Today, there are only a handful of sheep grazing allotments on the Tahoe National Forest to our east. Most of the grazing permits are for cattle - and most of these ranchers move their cows to the mountains in trucks. The remnants of past sheep grazing can be seen in the aspen carvings (arbo-glyphs) made by lonely Basque sheepherders, in the place names (like McGonagall Pass), and in archeological sites like the oven at Kyburz Flat.
In a very small way, we still practice a very localized transhumance. Our sheep spend the winter on annual rangeland west of Auburn. After the last lambs are born, we move them up the hill - a small elevation change, but up the hill nonetheless. The ewes and lambs graze on irrigated pastures until we wean the lambs in June; the lambs stay on this green grass, while the ewes go to lower quality dry forage. On September 1 (a month before breeding) the ewes come back to irrigated pasture to put them on a better plane of nutrition. Once the ewes are bred, they go back to lower elevation rangeland, and the annual cycle begins again.
Interestingly, Placer County still has a law on the books that must be a relic of our transhumant heritage. Several years ago, when we wanted to walk our sheep up a county road to another pasture, I called the road department to find out if it was possible. The man I talked to didn't know; he called back after several days to tell me that the only law on the books indicated that the county could do nothing to impair the movement of livestock on county roads - in other words, we had the right-of-way to herd our sheep up the road. Since that conversation, we've moved sheep on some of the quieter county roads near the ranch. Most of our neighbors love seeing us (and our dogs) move the sheep, but this love is not universal. Occasionally, someone will decide they can't wait 2-3 minutes and will drive past our flagger. Fortunately, we've never had any sheep or dogs (or shepherds) injured by these impatient jerks (I considered using a stronger word). Several years ago, a ranching family from Nevada County wasn't so fortunate. The Reader family still herds it's cattle from North San Juan to their summer grazing allotment on the Tahoe National Forest. Some who couldn't wait for the cows to move off the road injured several cows and purposely ran down one of the Reader's cattle dogs. There are very few things that could move me to violence; that would probably be one of them.
Last Friday, I got to visit one of my favorite places in the entire Sierra range - the Sierra Valley. Sierra Valley is - and mostly was (since the second half of the 19th Century), almost entirely grazed by cattle. Sheep mostly grazed on the periphery - and some still do. Sheep, it seems, can make use of lower quality forage (or maybe it's simply that ranchers have typically saved higher quality grass for higher value animals). As we descended into Sierraville on Highway 89, the sea of green grass blanketing the valley floor reminded me why ranching families have taken their grazing animals to the mountains for generations. Maybe someday....