Nova Scotia Flock Visit

I gave myself a small mission for the trip to Nova Scotia - to visit with a flock of sheep and their guardians as I have done in Montana and here at home in my own province. Having that small goal helped me get through the meeting portion of the trip.

Before leaving from home I touched base with a stranger known to me as Nova Scotia Shepherd, whom I follow on twitter. Would they mind a visitor who wanted to take some photographs? As it turns out, this person follows me through my Crooked Fences Newsletter and this blog, and were happy to meet up. We both have a similar approach to raising sheep on grass, and a deep appreciation of guardian dogs.

In hindsight it was a good plan to make the connection since many sheep flocks in Nova Scotia are reared indoors so you don’t see many sheep just driving around. While I toured only a small piece of the province, I saw just one other group of sheep in a front yard paddock.

When I arrived the sun peaked out in an otherwise very rainy day, and I was greeted with a volley of barking which quickly tapered off as we walked out to watch the flock.  There is a large flock here and seven dogs.  The dogs were alert and watchful as one would expect.  I was observed the whole duration of my visit by one dog or another, and was occasionally followed, although none of the dogs sought any direct attention from me.  They went about their business and I went about taking photos and visiting with Matt and Tasha, my gracious hosts.  

Once the dogs determined I was not an immediate threat, peace resumed.  After an hour long visit I continued on my way.  Not a bad way to spend a spot of one's afternoon I thought.

Side Trip

The colors of Nova Scotia are gorgeous even though this is not the prime time to see the province in all its spendour. The grass is still several shades of green, the soil is red, the shores are yellow and orange and brown, I was not expecting so many trees and such a forested feel, and there is no straight road to be had. 

I was in Halifax for sheep industry meetings, necessary although not really exciting. After the meetings I rented a car and headed to the Northern shore of Nova Scotia. The only concrete plan of the day was to meet up with Nova Scotia Shepherds, Matt and Tasha and visit their flock and their dogs (a connection made via Twitter).  Otherwise, I spent the day traveling at my leisure and stopping where I wished, to take photos.

I landed in Truro that night and the following morning headed westward, taking the trail along the southern shore of Cobequid Bay and the Minas Basin, travelling around to Wolfville and area (with a name like wolfville, I had to head there).  At noon I headed back to Halifax to catch the plane headed toward home.  All the pieces fell into place, plane rides, taxis, meetings, rental cars, driving and navigating, and hotel rooms. Away and home again.

For each place I visit there is a photo that takes me to a specific moment and place and causes me to think, yes that is what it was like.  Oddly enough, this next photo is that photo.  Upon good advice, I stopped at a very old general store and before getting back into the rental car, I stood on the side of the highway and watched these lovely white birds while absorbing where I was and what I was doing.  My guess is they are doves of some type (?)

I arrived home late last night. The experience of my walk was heightened this morning; the pace, the company of dogs, the prairie chill. The small pack is momentarily different before the familiarity of home and place settles into me, and the dogs and I are one and the same, connected again. Going away from home and returning lends to that feeling in spades.

Somehow We Adjust

Three days of being indoors and in meetings; slipping out for a short walk to the Halifax harbour to get fresh air and perspective.  Such a change of setting and of being.  The steady stream of people and meetings takes a lot of adjustment for this prairie introvert.  No meetings today though.  Today I might see some sheep and dogs and catch a few sights and sounds of this beautiful province of Nova Scotia.

Cold and Coyotes

The days are colder, no snow on the ground but the natural waters are frozen now. I brought the flock home last night so the animals could access open water at the water bowls.  No one seemed to notice, no one ran to the water bowls in thirst as I thought they might.  I surmised they are getting enough water from the heavily frosted grasses, or else they have opened a water hole I do not know about.

The coyotes are closer now.  Just this morning we saw one not far from the gate to the pasture. Tex and the pups met us at the gate, oblivious to the wild wanderer travelling a couple hilltops over.

Out further, at the flock, Lily and Whiskey came in from afar, heavily panting.  Oakley was still out and did not come up for breakfast. In these moments I feel like an outsider to this pack.  What is their story this morning?  What took place overnight?  Often we go without knowing.

For the next few days Allen will oversee the dogs and the flock and keep a lookout.  I'm heading to the eastern coast of Canada for a few days of meetings.  With luck I will have a short time to see some sheep and guardian dogs - I've packed the camera.

I will attempt to keep in touch but only have my phone along so there may be a short lull in the next few days (at the moment it won't let me share any photos and I have to catch a flight soon).  I'll also try instagram and Facebook.

The Canine Crew Part II

Photos and brief information of the individual dogs can be seen on the two newly updated pages, Livestock Guardian Dogs, and Stock Dogs (you can reach these pages anytime via the top navigation bar).

I chuckled at the exclamation of thirteen being a lot of dogs because I used to do the same.  Before the ranch I gave strange looks and judgment to people who had more than five dogs (I had five dogs back then so five was okay).  Now, a dozen dogs is part of my life and I know several others who have a dozen or more, and we can’t imagine not having the dogs to help fulfill the roles we’re in.

Here's a little slice about living with a lot of dogs and why we do.

With the livestock guardian dogs the terrain, the work situation, the type of predators, as well as the dogs themselves, determine how many dogs are present - not necessarily the number of sheep.  We have a lot sheep (relatively speaking), we also have hilly terrain, large spaces and bush and wetland.  If it were flat land and smaller acres we could do with less dogs.  We do not have large predators but we have numerous coyote in this area who know this terrain as well or better, than the dogs do.

Since it takes about two years for these dogs to mature into their roles and become reliable, sometimes pups are around before they’re really needed (which is our case right now).  Sometimes you get caught needing more dogs and you don’t have them.  Dogs get injured, dogs get old, young dogs can’t handle some of the tasks, one dog doing all the work, wears that one dog out faster.  It’s a fluctuating dynamic you’re always adjusting to.

As for stock dogs, I could make do with three or four, so long as two or more were able to work together.  One of the six stock dogs here is 14 years old and retired.  The next is over half way there.   I have four middle aged/young dogs. Enough to keep busy with for sure.

The cost for keeping this many dogs is in the thousands of dollars each year.  The cost of the guardian dogs is a ranch expense the sheep flock has to cover.  The stock dogs are a cost we swallow personally through any extra income we can generate.  We have a separate bank account set aside for dog veterinary expenses since large dogs are not cheap to vet.  The dogs receive veterinarian care when needed however it’s likely we are more conservative on this than most pet-dog households.  We do not take dogs to the vet at the drop of a hat, especially the livestock guardians.  Unless it’s an emergency or a problem we can’t help with, they get cared for at home.

We feed dry food and suitable household leftovers, yogurt etc.  We pick up meat trimmings and raw bones from the butcher in town.  In the cold winter months I make a porridge to add to the food.  I shared a blog post about that last winter.

When you have a string of dogs you have dogs at various stages in life.  In this case we have dogs who live a working, not always cozy, life.  Stuff happens.  This means we face the death of dogs, both planned and unexpectedly, on a more frequent basis.

It is a lot of dogs.  No doubt.  And certainly, my deep affinity for dogs encourages me to have them.  One can not face a life with dogs as rich and deep as this without a deep affinity for them, because living with them is both joy and trial enough, but to pull yourself through the emotional hell of losing dogs time and again, requires something akin to deep, deep devotion or beyond.

The Canine Crew

We have a bakers dozen of dogs here, six stock dogs and seven livestock guardian dogs. I will create two stand alone pages for this blog in the very near future and share individual photos and breed info of each dog there.

For now this gives an idea of who the canine crew are.  The photo of the stock dogs was taken this summer while Tanner was here for training, he has since gone back home.  From left to right: Tanner, Coyote Mic, Fynn, BJ, Gibson, BlackJack, Cajun.  Fynn is 14 years old, Cajun is half way to that and the rest are younger.

The stock dogs live with me. We do a few miles of walking/running every day, they have regular stock work and they come and go from my house. They are spoiled, they sleep on the couch. They stay in outdoor runs/exercise yards when I can’t have them with me or need to go to town for groceries and the mail.  These dogs are my work partners and my companions in a life that is largely lived in solitude.  We know each other well.

The livestock guardian dogs are another world of dogs. They are canine through and through and so feel the same on many levels, yet without the continual influence of human interaction, they are their own unit, and they function as such. I often feel secondary to that pack, a bit of an outsider.  I spend quite a bit of time watching these guys.

One of our male dogs stays situated with the rams and comes and goes from the main group only on occasion.  I have yet to capture a photo of all seven dogs, but I did manage one of six of them together at breakfast, albeit with all their heads down.

From left to right: Tex, Whiskey, Lily (background), Crow (foreground), Wren (lying) and Oakley.  Oakley is the eldest at 7.5 years.  Wren and Crow are the babies.

A summer photo during one of Zeus' visit to the pasture.  This is Lily and Zeus. 

In the twelve years of being here, we’ve had two litters of pups. One litter of livestock guardians a few years back, and more recently, BJ’s litter of three Kelpies.  Zeus is one of those pups, as is BlackJack, Tanner is another.  A select few of our dogs are intact.  Finding good dogs requires some searching.  With decreasing agriculture acres, there is less need of working dogs, and with that there is less people devoted to, and knowledgeable of, what traits make a good work dog, be it stock or guardian.

Son Of A Bee

Well, my miracle for the ram did not happen. I found him - I found him out at pasture with the ewe flock. Son of a bee.

On the flip side, however, I did enjoy the purpose and the miracle of stock dogs in solving this dilemma.

The rams outweigh me by two and half to three times, even if I were able to catch him, I had no hope of holding onto him or lifting him onto the ranger. I opted for walking him home with a group of fifty-sixty animals that I cut off and parted from the flock. That was enough animals to make the group feel secure enough to be moved away from the flock with reasonable, but not impossible, effort. Tex (livestock guardian dog) also happened to be with this group and once we got onto the well worn sheep trail, he got out in the lead, heading the right direction, and the group willingly followed. We made the long track home. These dogs do much more than deter predators. 

Once at home where we had some pens to work with, BJ and I sorted from one pen to another, cutting the ram out and leaving him in the building; a secure place to leave a single I thought. It wasn’t even noon and I had my problem solved; with luck we’ll only have a few early lambs.

BJ and I returned the ewes to pasture, picked up Cajun back at the yard, and headed out to bring home the rest of the rams. Using Cajun for this job, I put the group of rams in a paddock immediately behind the building, where they will stay.  All that was left to do was let Mr Singleton out the back exit to rejoin his mates. No dog was needed for this and indeed would only add undue pressure. 

Ah, but it ain’t over till it’s over. I made a rookie mistake of sorting him without having a group ready to put him with first, thinking it would be okay since the building is secure. He fled past me and right out the side of the building, leaping through an opening from a removed panel to allow for air flow in the building. The opening is crisscrossed with the tie ropes of the canvas building cover and he had to leap the bottom section of wall to do it. But he did, he crashed through, busted the tie ropes, raced over the hill and promptly joined the dogging sheep. That son of a bee.

Another round-up of sheep and a successful sort for the second time (thank you Cajun). By now the ram has had it with us, and we’ve had it with him. I’m just about to bring his mates to him when he finally exits the back of the building. Should he make another escape - I think we’ll come up with another plan for where Mr Singleton goes.

p.s  I did see the comment asking about the dogs and sharing photos to catch new readers up to date. That’s coming up.

There's One Thing

With raising livestock there is one thing that can ruin a good day, almost more than finding a dead animal can.

I headed out early for chores tonight because I wanted to see what Tex and Lily were up to when they weren’t expecting me. We suspect Lily is keeping Tex on the outskirts of the flock and she may be the one responsible for a recent minor wound on his back end. There is definitely a lack of warm, fuzzies between those two, however they do nothing that I can do anything about and that’s what makes this type of situation so very difficult to solve. Everyone is polite when things are calm and normal. Shit happens when there is excitement and that’s usually not when the shepherd is there watching. After observing dogs for awhile I fed everyone and headed over to check Zeus and the rams.

I’ve gotten into the habit of counting the rams, particularly when they are situated out at pasture, even if they are no where close to the ewes and you think there is no incentive to leave, it's good to check they're all there.  One, two, three…six… nine, ten … wait, wait, wait, where is eleven? I counted them again and again. There was no evidence of any escape, no lose wire, no open gate.

My day was pretty good until this point.  It was about fifteen minutes to full darkness, I did a quick search but otherwise, nothing to do about it tonight except seethe and curse, which I’ve done plenty of.   Tonight I'm going to pray ram eleven is, by some miracle, in the ram pasture come morning.

A Moment With BJ

Beautiful fall weather has arrived and we are enjoying it.  I moved the flock southward even though most of the tame forages on this pasture are grazed. I’m hoping the ewes find their way to the parcel of native prairie although the sheep don’t favour the slender grasses as much. With the flock headed south, I put the rams to the north, with seperation between the two groups.

BJ and Cajun were along for evening chores tonight. Our first stop was with Wren and Crow who are with the dogging sheep. Wren is showing some lameness and while Allen and I were checking her over BJ slipped off to fetch the sheep who were well across the paddock. She hasn’t worked for a couple weeks and was determined to go, disregarding my call to come back. BJ holds the soft spot of my heart and I let her be, knowing she’d bring those sheep right to my feet and she did just that. She was efficient about it and hence it was a short and dandy stint of work. It made me smile. Nothing too serious about it; watching a dog who knows full well what the purpose is and is geared up to do it. Moments like these are some of the best with these dogs.

Status Quo Until Then

I had a couple days of quiet and calm, of not working any dogs, or moving the flock (although that streak ended this morning); just doing morning and evening chores and taking extra long walks. There was time to take a couple of the Kelpies to the vet for planned procedures we put off earlier. That meant some driving time which always nets time to think.  I’m also attempting to organize a whole lot of photographs. The task feels like a bit of a waste of time, however, the more I use that camera the more necessary it gets to organize the thousands of photos that are a result of it.

walking with kelpies
Another photo from the files
Throughout the calm there is a good deal percolating through my mind much of which is centered on this thread we’re unraveling. The blessing is that Allen and I are in a good position to make some choices and not feel forced. Meanwhile we’ll keep status quo until we know what we want to do otherwise.

Part of what I seek is finding creative ways to make a difference beyond our individual back forty here. To do that will take creative insight and effort and there is plenty of that bottled up inside of me. Perhaps not knowing how to let it out is what is eating at me.

Popular Posts