Monday, May 7, 2018

Bringing Sheep Home

With lambing behind us and the weather in the Sierra foothills starting to warm up, we're turning our attention to shearing the ewe flock. We typically wait about 6 weeks after the last lamb is born (after which the wool comes off more easily), which usually puts shearing on Mother's Day weekend (as I've said before, I have a very patient wife). Since we graze almost entirely on other people's lands (which lack barns and electricity), shearing is the one stretch during the year when all of the sheep are at our home place north of Auburn for a few days. This Thursday, we'll haul all of the sheep home. Friday, we'll convert the horse barn into a shearing shed and the horse paddock into sheep yards. Saturday, we'll shear the sheep; on Sunday, we'll haul them all back to their summer pastures. And as much as I look forward to this part of our sheep year, I always have some trepidation about having all of our sheep on our little 3-acre property.

We live in a semi-rural area between Auburn and Grass Valley in California's Gold Country. While we still have a vibrant farming community in our part of Placer County, our particular neighborhood is not especially agricultural. I expect the neighbors look at the small group of sheep we generally have at home year-round (mostly bottle lambs and sheep belonging to our kids) with mild interest or amusement; having more than 170 ewes and lambs next door (not to mention three livestock guardian dogs) is a different matter.

Seven years ago, as I was hauling the sheep home for shearing (2011 was pre-drought, so there were even more sheep to be moved home), a neighbor turned us in to the county code enforcement officer for having too many sheep in our pasture. Our property is zoned "farm," and we're protected from nuisance complaints by our county's Right-to-Farm ordinance; nonetheless, I found the complaint irritating. The officer assured us that we were within our rights to have our sheep at home - especially when I told her they'd only be there for four days out of the entire year. As you might imagine, however, that experience has stayed with me. I still worry about annoying the neighbors.

When Auburn was truly an agricultural community, most of the neighbors wouldn't have given our sheep a second thought - they would have had sheep or cattle, too. And we wouldn't be hauling the sheep the 3 miles from our rented pasture to our home place; we'd have walked them safely up the county road. But today is different. Today, despite our rural environment, our community is largely urban in its attitudes towards the realities of agriculture. Many of our neighbors, sadly, are either misinformed or willfully ignorant about the realities of raising sheep at a commercial scale (or any other crop, for that matter). And we'd risk our lives (and those of our sheep and border collies) walking up the county road.

Our experiences, I suppose, are not that much different from our farming and ranching colleagues in North America or Europe. Those of us who chose to produce livestock or crops are rubes; anyone who's ever had a garden can be a farmer, after all! James Rebanks, an English shepherd who I follow on Twitter (@herdyshepherd1) uses the term, "daft twit" to describe these folks who look down on rural livelihoods. I like this term!

I'll admit that the day leading up to shearing, and shearing day itself, are noisy. We bring the entire flock into a dry lot the day before shearing - holding the sheep off feed and water makes them more comfortable during the 75 seconds or so they're on the shearing board. We also sort of 25-30 ewes the night before shearing and put them in a covered holding pen - we want to be sure their wool is dry when we start the next morning (heavy dew and wet wool can delay shearing). Their lambs call to them from the corrals; the ewes answer back most of the night. And I don't sleep well - I worry both about shearing day and about annoying the neighbors.

Ultimately, I suppose I hope that our shearing day is a reminder to our neighborhood about the work that goes into feeding and clothing all of us. While I worry about what the neighbors think, I also take a great deal of pride in participating directly in the production of food and fiber. And I'll be glad when all of the sheep are safely back in their summer pastures on Sunday evening!

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