A Tale of Transhumance: Herding Sheep with Livestock Guardian Dogs

One woman comes to better understand the range, nature as a whole, and herself by spending a season with the sheep.

| November 2012

  • Shepherds Of Coyote Rocks
    “Shepherds of Coyote Rocks” reveals the broad spectrum of the human relationship with nature, from harmony to rugged adventure. Author Cat Urbigkit offers interesting reflections on the role of pastoralists around the globe and on the controversial issue in Western American lands—private livestock herds being run on public space.
    Cover Courtesy Countryman Press

  • Shepherds Of Coyote Rocks

Writer and photographer Cat Urbigkit got to know public lands in the Upper Green River Basin by living the practice of transhumance—herding sheep across the seasons—by living with livestock guardian dogs and joining the ancient tradition of the shepherd. In this excerpt from the first chapter of her book Shepherds of Coyote Rocks (Countryman Press, 2012), read about the beginning of this communion with the outside world. 

The land outside my door is a land of contrasts. Today it is a place of supple beauty, the quiet of dawn punctuated only by the soft call of a golden eagle on her rock perch half a mile away, and the quork, quork of a murder of ravens as they fly over, inspecting my outpost. Yet while the sunlight spreads its golden rays over my nestled camp, I look up to see a winter storm raging over the granite peaks in the distance, the highline buried in a startling ribbon of white. I’m only an hour from our home ranch, but it’s as though I’m on the other side of the world. The landscape resembles the steppes of Mongolia. In fact, today it feels like Mongolia. I know this, having been drawn to the Mongolian steppe, and feeling at home in that amber Asian light.

Like the Mongolian nomads whose lives are tied to the herds they tend, I am here to watch over my sheep. I am alone in camp, with one herding dog, three guardian dogs, and several hundred pregnant ewes. The sheep are slated to begin giving birth in less than a week, and it’s my responsibility to shepherd them, to keep them safe. There are no houses within view, no lights at night to mar the pristine darkness other than that of the moon, the stars, and my flickering candle.

We’re new to the neighborhood, having trucked the sheep in yesterday, the first of May. We’ve received many shy visitors in the hours since our arrival, most in the form of curious avians, fluttering, flickering, hovering above, checking out the newcomers. Yesterday, despite the gusting winds of late afternoon, we were greeted by the smallest of the falcons, an American kestrel. A fluttering of wings above the bedded sheep, the kestrel zigzagged just out of reach. Small groups of pronghorn antelope raced in to see the new ungulates on their range, only to come to an abrupt halt, snorting their displeasure at our trespass. The pronghorn gradually calmed, pointing their dramatically marked faces to the ground, nibbling the fresh spring growth, succumbing to an acceptance of shared range.

I take comfort in the fact that, forty miles to the south, sheepherders from Nepal tend to other herds grazing this sagebrush range. They are my comrades, kindred spirits. They may have left extended families—their wives, small children, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, and grandparents—back home in Nepal; they may have once been mercenaries fighting for whoever could pay the most; they may currently be small-businesspeople working in a global climate. No matter their background, this nomadic shepherd life drew them here.

We each have our own stories. This is mine, a season with the sheep.

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