The Cutblocks

Picture this: sitting on a stump, nothing around you but hectares of trees, streams, fresh air, a whole bunch of sheep, some sheep dogs quietly working to hold the flock together, one other shepherd, and, your getting paid to do it! Quite a beautiful picture! Quite a job too!

This is part of the block that we were working. The tree line is the boundary of the block

Mind you, the job isn’t always this picturesque and wonderful. Once you leave the camp, you are out for the day—weather doesn’t make a difference, the sheep still need to eat and your job is to watch over them while they are doing that. If it is windy, rainy and cold or sunny, still and hot—you are still out there, unprotected from the weather, until the day is done.

When the forestry industry logs an area, they replant small trees to ensure the growth cycle is continued for generations to come. The seedlings that are planted sometimes have a hard time getting going, as the growth of weeds and other vegetation often smothers the young trees, or flattens them when holding snow during the long winters in the mountains. An environmentally friendly way to control these weeds goes back many years, and is still being used today—sheep.

Some of the flock we were caring for

I had the opportunity to go on a trip up the mountain, near the Wells Gray National Park, where shepherding the cut blocks is a normal and every day way of life. Shepherds come and go up miles of logging roads, into the high mountains, fresh air, trees and wilderness, to look after large flocks of sheep while they do their job to help the environment. 

The camps are set up close to the block the sheep are assigned to, and consist of two small trailers (one per shepherd), and portable fencing panels to make a pen large enough to hold the sheep during the nights. This portable ‘corral’ is moved every few nights, so that the ground doesn’t get too muddy and hard for the sheep to stand  in. There is no electricity, running water, or any other luxuries of modern day camping!

The average day begins with a ‘vet check’ of the sheep at about 7:00 in the morning. The shepherds go through the flock checking for any new problems, and tending to prior injuries like stick pokes, sore feet or anything else that may come up. Sheep that are found unable to make the long trip will be separated and penned at the camp. All others are then released and one shepherd leads the way, while the other follows the group with their dog. We spend the next ten to twelve hours hiking with the sheep up to the block, and then moving them around the area, ensuring they go into all areas within the block we are tending. The sheep usually lie down about twice during the day, to rest, and to chew their cud, which is required for digestion. Each lie down lasts about one hour, and gives the shepherds time to grab a bite to eat, sit down, and enjoy the peace.

My dog and I worked at the back the first day. This was hard on her, as she wanted to go around to balance, and wasn’t used to working in a ‘driving’ position the whole time. She caught on quickly though, and figured out that her new job was to ensure all sheep stayed together and none wandered off.

When we took our breaks, we let the dogs release a bit, and try working differently. I released Pepsi to do a fetch, and she happily left to go around and find balance point. She got a quarter of the way around the pack, and realized she couldn’t see me any longer—panicking a bit, she ran back the way she came to check things out. She soon figured out that there really is no ‘balance point’ working such a large number of sheep.

Moving the flock up to the block in the morning
Pushing through some tough spots!

The next day, we took the front—leading the way. I decided quickly that I preferred the back end.  Working in the front, I had to tromp through the weeds, not knowing what I would step on or trip over. When I worked the back the previous day, the sheep had packed down all the debris, and I was able to see where I was walking! 

I had lots of questions heading up there. A couple of them…

What about wild animals? Do you worry about them? 
Most sheep camps have guardian dogs. These are the big white dogs that are raised with the sheep, and learn to protect them at all costs. It seems to work. We didn’t see any wild life the whole time we were up there. The people working the camp said that they had only seen one wolf this whole summer. The guardian dogs are usually friendly to the shepherds, but usually take a formal introduction period to get used to, and trust any new herd dogs that come into the camp.  My dog did just fine, showed respect to the white dogs, and got along just fine with the other herd dogs.

Our guardian dog, on duty, taking up the rear of the flock with me and Pepsi

How about the roads going up there? Do you worry about getting stranded on your way up? 
Each shepherd is given a radio. Contact is mandatory as soon as you get to the gravel, and constant updates are given all the way up to the camp. There must always be two shepherds in each area, so if one is coming into camp, the person they are relieving may not leave until they are sure the relief is on their way up.

For information regarding Lynn Leach’s herding dog training, training events or training videos, please contact Downriver Farms, today!