Sheep Herding in Eastern Montana

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The author and his wife helped look after a band of 1,200 animals during a six month stint sheep herding in eastern Montana.
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The interior of the sheep wagon.
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George and Lynda Heath sitting outside their wagon.

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.

Oftentimes, when I was carrying a lamb to a jug, a ewe that
was about to give birth would butt the mother and all
others out of the way and claim the newborn for herself. We
called these funny troublemakers “Grannies.” You could tell
the real new mother by the bloody mucus hanging from her
bottom. Frequently you had to hunt her down, catch
her, and force her into the jug with her youngster or
youngsters. (Most often it was “youngsters”–twins or
triplets–since the sheep I work with are bred to
Swiss-Finn bucks which get a high percentage of multiple
births.)

It can be complicated trying to decide which baby is whose
when ewes drop their lambs at nearly the same time. This is
a problem especially for the man who’s on duty at night,
when the flock is barned up. In the middle of lambing, 50
would sometimes give birth on one shift.

Lambs that end up without mothers are called “bums” and
must be bottle fed. Sometimes, though, if we had a
motherless young’un and a bereaved dam with good milk, we’d
try putting the two together. That meant skinning the dead
lamb, putting its “jacket” on the orphan and rubbing the
live baby’s face and legs with the liver. Sounds bloody,
but most of the ewes were fooled and would accept their
foster children after a while.

Bet you didn’t know that sheep are born with long tails!
All our lambs lost them after a few days of life, and the
males were made into wethers. I liked lambing, but didn’t
care much for the docking and castrating even though
both jobs are now done with stiff rubber bands and
not–as they used to be–with a knife and the
teeth. We then branded the ewes and young with painted
numbers and turned them out in small groups to nearby
pastures. The lambs and sheared sheep are very vulnerable
to cold weather and we lost 5 to 8% in a bad spring
snowstorm, the worst loss of this kind my boss had
suffered in 35 years.

On May 4 we moved out to the summer range with half the
sheep, which were trucked the 30 miles there. A few weeks
later the rest were brought out by trail. Our job was to
watch 1,200 ewes and their lambs–called a
“band”–on a 6,000-acre pasture–rolling land
with some big open areas and some steeper, higher hills
from which we could see for miles.

We located our sheep camp in a small valley surrounded by
three of those high, plateau-like hills. There was one tree
on the land, and various waterholes, including a big
reservoir where we swam, bathed, and planted our garden. We
pitched a tipi beside our wagon for extra room and shade,
and for our summer visitors. Our food was cooled with a
propane refrigerator.

Because our pasture was “sheeptight” (surrounded by a
six-wire fence) I didn’t have to stay with the band all
day. I rose before sunup and walked or rode around the area
looking for coyotes. After dawn I pushed the sheep out of
camp in the direction I wanted them to head, and stayed
with them a few hours. In mid-afternoon I’d go out to see
how the critters were doing, put any strays back in the
pasture, and fix some fence. Woollies are tough to hold!

In the evening I’d bring my charges back for the night.
They weren’t really hard to gather up. In fact, except
for a few ornery old ladies, they’d usually start back on
their own. Also, sheep have a “herd instinct”: that is,
when they sense danger they run together in a group. Once I
had them bunched I started the animals home. My ewes were
an older band and knew the way well enough to make it by
themselves while I went after another lot.

I developed a cross between a scream and a war whoop which
got the sheep moving, but I still couldn’t have done the
job without my dogs (a young border collie and a part blue
heeler). Toward fall I could send one of them maybe a
quarter of a mile after a bunch. The old herders had dogs
which could be sent three and four miles away.

Both my helpers were fairly new at herding and sometimes
goofed. Once one got overexcited and pushed about 50 head
into a muddy ravine, where 10 of them got stuck. I had to
take my clothes off, go belly deep into the black, sticky
mess and drag the critters free. When I finished a few
hours later and crawled out completely plastered, I avenged
myself by throwing the dog in the mud.

I really enjoyed the beauty of this open land with its
magical rock formations and quiet, majestic sunsets and
sunrises. My horse and I loped all over the countryside, on time so far that I worried about overworking the mare and gave
her oats and hay around the wagon. She quickly turned into
a big pesty goat, always banging around outside our
quarters and trying to get into our precious hauled water.
At least she was very easy to catch (pretty important out
in the open country). Next spring she should throw us a
colt, so I’ll have to use a different horse for a while.

One thing I didn’t like about sheep country was the
coyotes. They were bad, particularly in the fall when the
spring pups got big enough to hunt on their own. Oftentimes
they don’t even clean up their kills. Good herding and
tight fences help a lot, but hungry coyotes can get very
bold … and they’re hard to shoot from the ground in
this open terrain where they can see you coming for miles.

Ranchers can no longer poison coyotes, and there are no good
hunting or trapping programs aimed at limiting their
numbers. We agree with the ban on poisoning, but some
control is needed or the brutes will put almost every
sheepman out of business (as is already starting to happen
around here). A look at the piles of bones around our
summer pasture would convince most people of the problem.

Even with the coyote menace, though, we still had a good
part of the summer to ourselves. The old-time sheepherder
piled rocks, read cruddy books, and drank whiskey to pass
the time. We played music on our autoharp and guitar,
studied home childbirth, and did some leatherwork. (I make
our footwear–moccasins–and hope to have
collected a couple of cowhides by next year so I can make
an Indian saddle and other things.)

We also walked a lot, starting with the mile to the mailbox
twice a week. And every day we did a mile and a half on
foot or horseback to hand-water the garden. Lynda and I had
planned a good-sized patch but–after a few days of
digging and breaking up the earth by hand–we settled
for a plot 20′ X 25′. We mulched the crops, had a fair
harvest, and learned a lot about food-growing in this area.
In the fall we used our boss’ rototiller to turn the soil
over after adding sheep manure. Next year we’ll have a
water pump and–we hope–a better planned and
more plentiful garden.

We ate a few of the local prairie chickens, and if I’d been
a better shot we’d have had a wild turkey and the rabbit
which nibbled some of our produce. I saw a few rattlesnakes
and we thought about trying some of the meat, but decided
not to kill them unless they endangered us. We also
considered prickly pear cactus for our table. Never
got around to tackling it, though. There are cacti all over
and it took us a good couple of weeks to learn to avoid
stepping on them in our moccasins.

So the summer went on, and on August 27 Father Sky and
Mother Earth gave us a beautiful 5 1/2-pound slightly
red-haired daughter. We couldn’t find a midwife to help,
but had studied home birth for quite a while and went ahead
anyhow. When contractions began we got the wagon ready and
started our first Lamaze breathing exercise. Thirteen hours
later we were still having contractions and felt that
everything wasn’t going as it should. We finally decided to
drive to the hospital 75 miles away. Lynda had 34 hours of
labor but because of the Lamaze method she never
experienced much pain. Next child, we’ll find some help and
have a home birth.

Two words of advice if you’re going to have a baby: Take
the Lamaze course, and at least look through Let’s Have
Healthy Children
by Adelle Davis. Nutrition is
essential for a pregnant and nursing mother and a little
babe.

We named our small one Wynden Sage, and she slept with us
the rest of the time we were herding sheep. She was the
delight of all the old farm couples who were our summer
neighbors.

Then fall came, with welcome cooler days and lots of
wildlife. I enjoyed that time the most out of the six
months we spent on the range. On October 27 we trailed the
sheep home and cut out the wether lambs for market. Our
small family then moved into a house on the ranch–the
first we’ve lived in since we’ve been together–to
work for our boss through the winter.

Herding and farm work are good jobs to have while you’re
trying to get your own place. You learn a lot, get plenty
of sunshine and fresh air, and can usually raise some stock
of your own. (Our boss encourages us to keep critters, and
will give us bum lambs to raise. He also feeds and shelters
our goats and horse year round.) We don’t make a lot of
money, but our expenses are few and we save a good part.
Soon we hope to be paying on 20 to 40 acres of our own.

If you’ve read this article, you already know more about
sheep and herding than I did when I started. If you want to
try our way of life, you can get names of possible
employers through the Montana, Wyoming, or Idaho Sheep
Associations. Good luck!

Need Help? Call 1-800-234-3368