Following and tending to a herd of sheep, through one season on a Wyoming range. The author and her husband raise sheep on a federal grazing allotment, keeping the herd within a prescribed area (albeit very large) for the main part of the season, and returning home to the ranch for the winter. There’s day-to-day descriptions of her work with the herd, weather and wildlife encounters on the range. Interspersed with all that are explanations on how grazing animals affect the landscape, the difficulties in dealing with predators which are protected under law, and descriptions of how range sheep are managed in other parts of the world, with a lot about the benefits of pastoral grazing and the culture of sheepherders. It was a bit dry in style, but also very interesting because presented a completely different viewpoint to previous things I’ve read about wildlife and the use of land for grazing animals. Just one example, even though I read it many years ago, I still remember how strongly this book convinced me that coyotes are good for the landscape- insisting among other things, that they mostly ate small rodents and ground squirrels, not calves (that writer lived in an area with many cattle ranchers). Urbigkit makes it very plain that coyotes were a serious threat to her lambs, along with birds of prey, black bears, wolves (introduced from Canada) and mountain lions. The most effective -and least harmful to protected wildlife- way to keep the sheep losses to a minimum, is using guardian dogs that are raised with the sheep and live among the flock. I’ve heard about these special dogs before, so I really liked reading more about that. They’re quite fierce- not hesitating to tangle with the predators- and tenderly watch over lambs that go astray or get abandoned by their mothers, until the shepherd can take them into her care (during the year of this book, she had fifteen “bum” lambs). I was surprised to read how widely the dogs roam- pretty much wherever they want to, in their duties protecting the flock. Sometimes she got visited by dogs from other flocks that happened to be nearby- and often recognized them, as being from the same litter as one of her dogs, offspring of one she knew, etc. The young lambs sound so darling, but of course they sometimes meet with mishaps or disease, and not all the orphans she raises in the bum flock make it. The book closes tidily with the end of the season, when they move the sheep herd to sort out the lambs and older ewes for sale, and return to the ranch for winter.
Some of the more interesting points were learning about how the grazing habits of the sheep, with their hooves breaking up the soil and their dung fertilizing it, actually improve the land (sagebrush does better and is more productive with grazers passing through, for example). I read more about the controversial winter feeding of elk on the range- I thought this was just to keep elk from starving during tough winters, but apparently it is to keep them from going to areas where cattle are fed, because disease can pass between the two species. Also I learned that wild bighorns can cross with domestic sheep, although the resulting hybrids are a problem because legally the shepherds can’t own any wildlife or hybrids thereof (even though they tried to keep the bighorn ram out of their flock!) There was also a pronghorn that started hanging out with the sheep on a regular basis at one point. And she had two donkeys that lived with the herd, also protecting the sheep but with different focus and methods than the dogs. All the interactions of the animals are engaging to read- whether dogs and sheep, dogs and coyotes, ravens hanging around the lambing grounds, grouse, foxes, osprey, cranes and more that the author could observe up close. There’s plenty of photographs.
I was curious to see what else this author has written, so took a look- quite a few books about sheep, the guardian dogs, and some of the wildlife in Wyoming. I’ve read her book about pronghorn. Most of the other titles appear to be juvenile non-fiction, which is still appealing enough I may look for some of them at the library.
Borrowed from the public library.