Louise Wagenknecht, sheep farmer
Louise Wagenknecht writes from Leadore, Idaho, where she juggles words, sheep, and a part-time job with the U.S. Forest Service. Her essays have appeared in High Country News, the American Nature Writing anthologies, and The River Reader.
Monday, 7 Feb 2000
This morning, just as the sun came up over Powderhorn Ridge across the valley, a golden eagle landed in the dead top of the big cottonwood tree along the irrigation ditch just west of our house. The starlings hunched in the cold (five degrees above zero) only moved over a little for her, unafraid. The eagle is checking out the pile of sheep guts in the field behind the back fence (I butchered a couple of last year’s lambs yesterday for meat). I had hoped that putting the pile so far away might attract the bald eagle wintering nearby, living on winter-killed cow carcasses, but the ravens got there first, and are not about to relinquish it.
I look out the window at the sheep corrals, where ewes lounge around the hay racks, soaking up the pale February sun, not very warm at 6,000 feet. A couple of ravens stalk through the snow around them or play tag on top of the racks. This morning there is — blessedly — no wind.
Our senior Great Pyrenees guard dog, Mitzi, emerges from her nest in a hay rack, stretching. She lives with the sheep, never approaching the house. She has been with them since puppyhood, and is bonded to them. Guard dogs are said to regard themselves as alpha sheep, but as one of the old leader ewes approaches her, she wags her tail and grins and rolls onto her back — submissive gestures. But without Mitzi to patrol the fencelines and guard them, we would lose lambs to predators — mostly coyotes, although the lone wolf that killed a neighbor’s lamb last year came here first, and was evidently intimidated by Mitzi defending her turf. We found his big tracks outside the fence the next day.
With Mitzi, we have never “needed” to shoot or trap predators. We have long believed what wildlife researchers confirm — that killing predators is counterproductive both ecologically and economically. A few years ago we became certified as a Predator Friendly (PF) livestock operation. Since then we have marketed most of our wool to a Montana outfit which trademarked PF Wool, and which sells sweaters, hats, and blankets made from it.
My husband, Bob, and I have been raising sheep here in this dry valley for 10 years. We own seven acres of rocks and sagebrush, leasing a hundred more from a neighbor. Our valley gets eight inches of rain or snow a year. What water there is melts off the mountains in spring and summer, and is funneled into the irrigation ditches of those who have water rights. We have none, so we have to buy all the hay we feed in winter. The big field provides two or three months of grazing for our flock of 60 whiteface ewes, but by July the grass has dried up. Like most small livestock producers in the West, we have no public lands grazing permits, so unless we can rent irrigated pasture, we have to start feeding alfalfa hay again to keep the lambs growing.
February is a quiet time here, cold and beautiful. The ewes will begin lambing March 1. We have a shed to shelter newborn lambs and their mothers, and sheltered “mixing pens” where lambs up to a few weeks old can live with their mothers, but not enough barn space to bring all 60 pregnant ewes inside at night. So all through March, one of us must walk outside every two hours, all night long, to check “the drop bunch.”
I hear Bob putting on his boots downstairs. Feeding time! See you all tomorrow.