Last week my husband told me about the sheep herders that go along the canal with a flock of sheep to graze off the tall grass, weeds, and brush. Well that sounded like an interesting story to photograph so we started looking into it a bit more.
Just our luck we heard of a man that my husband had met before who volunteers to do this for the non-profit organization. They had spoken before but he never knew he was a sheep herder. We found out what day he would be herding and the location so I packed up my cameras and we headed out.
When we first arrived the sheep were all settled in their overnight pen waiting the arrival of the sheep herder and his dogs. As I walked around the pen I noticed this mother and baby close together enjoying each others company. I love sheep, they are such a warm gentle docile animal. This particular breed is called the Vlaams Schaap. They have an interesting history you can read on the link.
We up met with John Ooms as he was just about to turn the sheep out of their overnight pen to graze along the canal. When they see the dogs they know it is time to eat. So they bunch up together (as shown in the first photos) and push on the small plastic fence which has electric around the inside. As John turned off the fence the 279 sheep were pushing hard to get out and jumping over the fence. We were trying to help hold them back, but John quietly just said "Let them go I have my dogs" And later we found out just how well his dogs knew their job.
Here is a video as the sheep moved from their pen to settle in on grazing.
They graze very close to the waters edge so it important that the dogs do not come at them to hard or they could spook and fall in the canal. Which as John explains can happen now and again. But the herder is always there to pull them out.
John has one of his dogs in the front of the flock and the other behind them. They both have been trained to stay away and remain calm unless he whistles for a command to gather or move them. As you can see in this photo the dog is quiet and laying down and the sheep are more concerned about me and my camera than the dog.
A good herder always keeps an eye on the sheep.
The dogs try and protect the sheep from getting to close to the edge of the canal, but sometimes this comes at a cost.
The dog got carried away with his job and fell into the canal. John and my husband quickly came to his assistance. The canal has calm waters but there is nowhere an animal can get out once they are in so the two men had to go an pull him out with their hands. I saw that they were in control so I continued to photograph the incident. (a photo journalist instinct)
When the dog got to the side as you can see he began to shake and drench his hero's.
Also if you look, just behind the dog shaking is the camera my husband was holding for me. Obviously it got a bit wet, but I was thankful he thought to lay it down before going after the dog or I would have been out one expensive camera. I am glad it survived the incident.
After a long visit while the sheep grazed John and his dogs began heading on down the canal.
I was so impressed how he trained his dogs to not pressure the sheep. At one point as John was visiting I noticed the sheep were starting to stray away from the canal road and heading into the woods. I watched his dog patiently wondering when he would be told to go get them and bring them back. He kept looking at John and then the sheep. Finally after about 15 minutes the dog decided to take care of the situation himself. He quietly went into the woods and herded each of the stray sheep back to the flock. The dog in the front of the flock joined in. They both gathered the sheep very quietly and got them herded up again. Very impressive.
It was a great experience to watch a man and his dogs work so well together. The sheep herders volunteer for the non-profit organization that hires them out to graze difficult areas, like the canal. The sheep are purchased by local people. A sort of a "adopt a sheep" for the project. Some of the herders are paid but John likes to volunteer his time so he can put his dogs to use. The towns get all their hard to mow areas cleaned up by the sheep, the sheep herders can do what they love and local people can then enjoy areas that would normally been over grown. It is a win win for everybody.
I like these type of solutions that bring animals and people working in balance with nature. It is also good for people today to see this type of tradition that is becoming rare in today's new lifestyles.
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