A Winter Walk

The dogs and I make the most of our afternoon walk on this gloriously sunny and warm day by traveling out to a far south pasture for an extended romp. We’ve just come around a bend and through a gateway. As we head up this hill it gives the illusion of vast prairie space but once we crest that hill there is native prairie, trees and shrubs to explore in.

Just five dogs; I left the eldest dog at home. Fynn is the Border Collie and at 14.5 years of age these longer treks are tough for him.

The flock is nowhere near here but during the grazing season the sheep often settle in this pasture on the far side of that hill. I’m heading to a favourite sitting stone, and after that we explore our way around the native prairie and head back home, tired and well refreshed by time spent outdoors on a glorious winter day.

Wool Works Needle Felting

I'm catching up with a Facebook post - I have had my head buried in the sand, reading, writing, feeding sheep, and felting.  I shared this piece on FB a few days ago but I'll share more information along with the photos here on the blog.

I haven’t come up with a definitive way to start my needle felting pieces. Some take a lot of effort to set up and others fall into place with little need for set up. The ones with a lot of detail I have to draw first and transfer to my canvas, others I just dive into without any drawing.

The reference photo for this one was very poor but the scene was there and called out to be done with wool. Since it is a simple scene I figured I could attempt it and see where the fibre took it. I struggled some with the leaves and felt I was trying to force them too much before letting go and letting them be.

'Shady Rest' is about 16 x 20 inches and may still get some felting yet but I thought it would be good to show where this one started and where I left off with it.  It's all needle felted, using fibre from Romney, Corriedale and Targhee cross sheep.

I Get It and a Book to Share

Sharing notes about the dogs is thoroughly rewarding, there are so many nuances to who they are and what they do. Somedays I feel like the richest person alive to have created a life that revolves around these canines and their working purpose - both guardians and stock dogs.

Speaking of sharing notes, another person highly devoted to guardian dogs is Wyoming rancher, Cat Urbigkit. Cat is also a noteworthy author and I just ordered her recently published book Brave and Loyal and so look forward to receiving it.

Her older book Shepherds of Coyote Rocks is also worth a read, although not specifically about the dogs it shares a life of raising sheep on the range and has many lgd stories entwined into it, such is the dependence on the dogs to do this, and such is the dependence on ranchers to keep a natural way of life and purpose.  I thoroughly and deeply connect to what this dependent, reciprocal relationship is like; how in control you want to be and how out of control you are; and how deeply they weave into the fabric of your being.

LGD Breed Notes

Having a large flock affords the opportunity to raise different guardian dogs and through the years of highs and lows become a bit wiser for all the experiences. 

Different breeds of guardian dogs certainly have distinct working styles but explaining them is a bit like explaining why Kelpies and Border Collies are different because so much about the two working breeds is also very similar.

One leg up that the guardian dogs have is that they are still largely bred for a working purpose only (there are no guardian dog competitions to encourage otherwise); and crossbred dogs are the norm with guardians rather than the scandal, which I think has done some harm to the dogs working ability but overall has done much further good.

The difference between the work styles of guardian dog breeds has something to do with the level of prey drive and certainly there are some breeds who lean toward having more of that. After that it comes down to the individual dog.

So if we put individuals aside for the moment and talk breeds in general than yes, the Anatolian Shepherds I know have a higher level of prey drive than my white dogs. And more recently I think the trend has been to breed for this - maybe to the detriment of the breed.

Anatolians are a lot of dog and they are very alert watchers. They pick strategic places to look out from and they watch for movement. They tend to be quieter workers, not usually first to sound the alarm but if warranted put up a sound that would make anything think twice. They move off silently too, much like a predatory hunter.

At rest they are always near the flock or right amongst the ewes but they do not show much coddling behaviour toward individuals. They take their position, lie down and the sheep graze around them. Period. I find the Akbash to be a bit like this as well.  With its sighthound tendencies the Akbash are very alert to movement on the horizon and the Akbash have a strong willingness to pursue trouble for a long time.

On the other hand the Great Pyrenees and Maremma’s tend to have less prey drive. They also tend to be the more vocal alarm sounders. They’re equally alert but I think alarm more to sound and scent first, and sight later (I have no definitive proof of this but these are my hunches from watching the few dogs I have). 

These guys also tend to be more cozy with the sheep and will have conversations with them and move through the flock ‘talking’ to individual/favorite ewes. The lower level of prey drive factors into this bonding behaviour. The lower level of prey drive also equates to dogs that stay with the flock rather than patrol endless miles of territory.

Dogs with higher prey drive are likely to wander away from the flock and when they pursue a predator they stay on it - going beyond perimeters to do so.

No matter what the breed though, when these dogs rest, and they do have to rest, they can’t go 24/7, they all sleep very soundly (relatively speaking - we are talking about dogs here). I always thought they would be such light sleepers.

Solo Photo - LGD

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

It’s four white dogs to two coloured ones here and by those odds I have more photos of the white beasts than of this guy or his son.  This is Whiskey.

Felting with Kelpies

The weather has turned warm - too warm.  It’s never a good thing to have melting temperatures, when without a doubt, you’ll be returning to frigid temps in short order.  Remaining below freezing would be best. 

The winter plugs along and I right along with it.  I don’t go too far; I’m so settled in my place during the winter and find I don’t have a lot of reasons to go anywhere. A trip to town now and again and a very occasional day in the city is more than enough.  Today was the latter, as I traveled to the veterinarian with BlackJack for a neuter procedure, and spent time in the city while waiting to pick him up at the end of the day. 

Daily details of looking after a flock, guardian dogs, stock dogs, and taking long walks consumes the shorter daylight hours.  What’s left is spent at the art table, which is highly enjoyable for me, or attempting some writing, which still requires effort.

One drawback with doing fibre art and living with Kelpies is that fibre art equals large volumes of wool, and Kelpies occasionally desire to get their paws on the stuff.

blurry phone photo 

I quickly grabbed my phone to snap a photo as BJ climbs over the back of the couch and drops into a big box of bulk wool.  A perfect pillow, but now and again she also attempts to pluck mouthfuls of wool, or to pull it off the drawing table and drag it around.  Perhaps I shall have to teach her to back sheep and hit the topknot as many kelpies are taught to do in their native land.

A weighty kelpie sinks deep into the wool

Sepia Sheep

A couple photos that were quite poor quality and about to be tossed before I decided to try them in sepia tone.

I love this one of the single, it makes me want to know what she is looking at. It has a lonely feel to it, perhaps if only because it’s a sheep on her own (the flock is behind her, to my right). It was taken on an evening check of the flock, the sun is just going down but there is still some residual light.

The next photo was taken during the day but is too light, or overexposed. Not a great one but I appreciate the scene, knowing a few extra details about the sheep as a shepherd does.   I wasn’t trying to take a photo of any dogs but I see Tex landed in this one.

Presentation Pieces

Last January I was sitting on a producer panel at a sheep symposium. We were asked questions about our farms/ranches. In an answer to one question I mentioned that Allen and I were working to pay off our land mortgage and would so in the spring (of 2016).

That comment resulted in an invite to share our story at this years symposium. That’s what I was speaking on this weekend - how a grass based sheep operation helped pay for the land.   I know some of you have followed this blog for some time and might be curious about that story as well.  It is a 40 minute presentation; here are a few snippets of what it contained (I must admit the presentation had some great photos to help it along :-)  and it was better received by the human audience than by the Kelpies).

This place used to be a crop farm until we turned it into the grass based sheep operation it is today.

“The ewes are what we spend 365 days a year with so we focus on keeping ewes in great condition year round, not just at breeding time and lambing time. The input we put into our animals is in keeping them out grazing and moving across the land. Our priority is a flock who thrive in the grassland environment we’re in - if the ewes do that the rest will be there too.”

“It is an approach that holds relevance for Allen and I and how we view farming and our role in the environment.”

“We are spending more dollars in keeping the flock healthy than we are in treatment of animals. I would hazard a guess that is not the case on a lot of farms.”

“Keeping your ewes, and your land, healthy and content is the biggest time and money saving effort you can do.”

“Approaching your farm in this manner takes a rearrangement of the pieces of your thinking.” 

“…. examining what the land and animal offer and what we offer in return - what’s our potential in this game? The closer to the natural value of a thing we can stay the simpler it seems to be. As soon as we push for the animals, the land or ourselves to be un-naturally valuable, we seem to lose our way.”

“There has also been a lot of letting go - letting go of what we can not control. There is a lot of trust in Mother Nature and a belief that those of us who are fortunate enough to be on a piece of land, no matter what size, have everything we need to make this work, no matter what scale.”

Ewe Routine

There is not much of a perimeter fence remaining on the winter pasture where the flock is grazing.  That fence line is the last stretch we have to change out from electric high tensile fence, to new woven-wire fencing. We need to replace some corner posts and the current high tensile wire is loose which means sheep can walk through the fence if they want to. That’s how they came into the yard area the other day.   

In the deep cold weather they don’t venture really far.  On milder days they definitely go further but are not leaving the pasture.  It is only a matter of time before they do though.  During any other season they would be leaving.  Snow and short days are on our side for now, and the ewes are very routine in the winter; they return to the bedding area every night.  In the summer this is not the case.

Speaking of routine, mine has been lightly sidetracked as I prepare for a presentation to our provincial sheep symposium. It is a small event that takes place this weekend. I’ve been practicing my talk on the Kelpies - being stuck indoors with me they have little choice in the matter but are keeping their comments to themselves.

Wooly Wanderers

Just when we thought the ewes were ready to hunker down on the hay feed and stay put for the winter they begin wandering off to graze the greater pasture area.

The ewes are making this choice to leave the hay feed and venture out and forage as they prefer and I love to see them do so. I feel very strongly that being able to travel and forage at any time of the year goes a long way to keeping animals healthy and content. If we locked the ewes up in corral spaces we’d never know of their strong desire to do so.

Today the ewes ventured toward the yard and discovered a hillside right on the edge of the yard that they have not yet grazed. They are actually just outside of the pasture. This meant they were in view from the house - a rare occasion. I had to stop and watch them each time I passed by the window. Sheep therapy.

With the combination of the winter scene and the uncommon spot, it was like seeing them anew.  Finally I grabbed the camera and darted outside, still in my moccasins, to take a few photos regardless of the flat light.  It is marvellous how vigorously they dig for edibles under the snow.

I let the Kelpies outside at one point and they all gawked at the scene - taken by surprise that sheep could be right there, in their yard; we always have to walk or drive out of the yard to see sheep. Oh they gave me a laugh.

Felting Through Cold and Wooly Days

It’s a cold and wooly day; a day well suited to working with wool in one’s spare time. Since I pulled the felting needles out, I’ve been working pretty steady on needle felting.

A couple blog posts ago I shared the sketch and layout of the start of another project.  This is the finished look.

This one is just a little better than 12 x 16 inches in size. Made with wool from Shetland sheep, Romney sheep and Corriedale sheep. The shetland wool was used for the background and while it did not felt easily, or tightly, the longer fibres created an effect on their own with little shaping from me.

Many of the scenes I imagine doing with wool are of the sheep and the guardian dogs.  Only occasionally does one of a Kelpie pop into my mind, although I do think of many kelpies pictures to do with color pencil.  I have a bag of brown/blackish shetland wool the was gifted to me from a reader.   It was the brown/black colors and the long fibres that made me see a kelpie in some fashion and when I went through my reference photos the pose of this dog seemed a simple one to try.  I have no title for it yet.

Solo Photo - Sheep

Sea of Wool

A fitting photo for the recent bitter cold upon us once again.  Took a few tries to get a photo with no sheep heads popping up, still had to crop the edge of this one.  

January Mornings

The mornings are long, quiet and dark, a perfect time for a creative person to work, and the one reason I look forward to winter. Otherwise winter is a season I have learned to grin and bear as best as possible. I rise early each day, a habit I’ve had for as long as I can recall, make a cup of tea and sit at the desk or the art table; which ever one pulls me that morning.

A morning can pass by in no time and often I feel a sting of disappointment that light is showing in the east already. The disappointment is not because I dislike like the next part of the day but because I wish the creative part did not need to end, such is the feeling it gives me.

We’re feeding hay daily now as the stockpile forage is dwindling, although on nicer days the ewes still prefer to travel and pick. We don’t anticipate any flock work in the next while; the kelpies will have it easy for the next couple months.  Sheep breeding is well underway with ten rams servicing the ewes in the main flock.  Since I sold some animals there is only a small number of replacement ewe lambs left over this year.  We did not bother to separate them from the main flock.

This photo is of Zeus and was taken during the first early snow fall, back in October.  I like the soft orange colors for a first sheep and dog photo of the new year.  

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