Sheep Herding in Eastern Montana

They started out living in an old wooden sheep wagon and ended up sheep herding in eastern Montana.

| July/August 1974

It all began when I read MOTHER EARTH NEWS and decided I'd like an old-time sheep wagon for a home. Since I knew there were quite a few of the sturdy relics abandoned here in rural eastern Montana, I started driving around in the country and asking farmer friends. Half a year's search turned up an old wooden-wheeled model which I could have free if I'd haul it away. Then I met Lynda and we decided the wagon looked big enough for two, so we got to work fixing it up.

We took off the old roof, exposing the beams, and re-covered the top with a heavy handwoven rug. Over this went new 18-ounce waterproof canvas, attached with strips of discarded inner tubes, so that on calm summer nights we could fold it back and sleep under the stars. Then we patched a few cracks, made a double canvas door, bought half a ton of coal, cleaned out our wood-burning stove and oven and settled in for the winter.

We lived on a farm which we rented with friends, ate with the others in the farmhouse, and slept in our wagon at night. The rugged roof and wood-burning stove kept us comfortable (sometimes even too warm). Then, in the course of our first "sheep wagon winter," it struck us that sheep herding would be the next logical step. We sent out inquiries and—to our surprise—landed a job which started April 1, during lambing season.

In March we painted our traveling home, took off the rug and remounted the wagon on an old truck frame with wooden spokes and rubber wheels. (Look, a front porch!) Then we licensed our rig, loaded up and headed for the new job. Our traveling speed was between 30 and 40 mph ... with a short break for the installation of taillights, after we got fined $25.00 for not having any. On March 31, all of us—including horse, cat, dog and three goats—arrived at our destination.

The flock had already been sheared before we came, and on April 1 we began 21 days of lambing. "Sheep are born trying to die," Lynda's father had told us. We learned the truth of that statement right at the start, because woollies have the least maternal instinct of any critter I've dealt with. They're always having more lambs than they've got milk for, losing track of their babies, rejecting their lambs (sometimes killing them) and generally refusing any assistance you may try to give them.

My main job was to walk the yard where the 1,200 ewes were penned up and watch for newborn young. When I spotted one I picked it up, found the right mother and used the baby to lure her into the barn. There the dams and their offspring were kept in small pens called "jugs" and watched and helped for a few days.

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