Sunday, 31 March 2013

Shepherding and Chantal

The next story I want to share with you turned out to be one of those moments,
that when you look back at it,
you realise your life might have taken a very different course,
had things not gone the way they had.
 Me shepherding on the heather.

So, there I was, every day on the heather or  in the forested areas of the nature park the Maashorst in the Netherlands. A few trusty border collies, Chantal my livestock guardian dog at my side and about 4-500 sheep. Every morning, I would take the sheep from their night corral and walk them to the area  that would be grazed that day.
Djan, making sure the sheep stay off the cycling path on a winter day.

Some days, I  was closer to a cycling path or a route where people liked to walk,
other times it was a little more off the beaten track.
Never, in all my life have I ever felt scared while out in the bush.
Not in South Africa, not in the Netherlands and so far, not in Canada.

I have though about how inconvenient it would be if I broke my leg or something silly like that while out shepherding. 
Even then, it never bothered me.
In those days we did not have  cell phones, so if something happened, I would have to wait until someone missed me enough, to come looking for me,
or in a worse case scenario,  that the sheep would drift away and end up in someone’s yard and then the irate owner  would come looking for the shepherd…
Most of the time, when you are out shepherding you meet people walking the dog, or cycling, or having a family picnic.
Most people  would stop by for a  chat with me.
If I was given a dollar for every time people asked me “how many sheep I had”, I would be a rich girl.
I used to get quite a few visitors to the flock.
I had “regulars” who would come and visit with me, often older retired men, who remembered an era of more shepherds,
and cultivating the heather regions after the second world war in order to produce food.
They would reminisce of the old days, and I loved to hear their stories.  
We would often share an apple with each other, while we chatted away.
A jogger  on his way, would give a quick wave and keep going,
kids would want to run around and chase the sheep in a million directions,
the women, I met,  would often ask me more personal questions things like; don’t I get bored, or how do I managed to keep my house clean when I am always shepherding?
 Men preferred to talk about the more technical details; asking questions such as how long an area takes to graze, or what happens to the lambs?
I would have the occasional negative reactions; someone being difficult about putting their dog on a leash, or being impatient to be able to cycle past the sheep; however those were few and far between.
On a nice sunny day, I was shepherding in a remote area of the park. This was a place where you did not just bump into someone, it was definitely away off the beaten track. A great area to go if you did not really feel like answering questions from the public. The area was wooded, with quite a lot of grass growing under the tall trees. The area was slightly undulating. 
 I was sitting down reading a book, when Chantal warned me that someone was approaching. I looked around and saw a man watching the flock at about 300meters away. This was not unusual and so I did not mind him too much. He stayed quiet some time, just leaning up against a tree watching.
This is the part of the forest where my story took place.
Here Djan works the sheep to me.
The next day, I headed off to the same area with my entourage.  At about 11 am, Chantal stood up and warned me that someone or something was in the area. I looked around and spotted the same man as the day before. He was a little closer now and was once again just watching. I felt a little creeped out, as most people would either watch and move on, or watch and then come over for a  chat.  He disappeared into the woods.
Sometime later, he reappeared again in another spot.
He never approached me, just watched. I could recognise him in his light tan leather jacket and jeans. Chantal would be giving a low growl and  the odd woof.
He spent a good part of the day in the area.
I started to pay more attention to him and where he was.
That evening I mentioned him to Eric and he suggested I phone and chat with the police. I did that but they said as long as nothing happened and he was not doing anything illegal, there was not much they could do. I realised they were right, he was doing nothing wrong just watching the sheep eat.
Day three; back in my corner of the woods. Chantal was on her lead by my side. Three collies with me, spaced out watching the sheep graze. I was sitting on a little stool attached to my backpack. Chantal sat up and rumbled. I looked up and saw the same man walking purposely towards me.

I knew, and felt that something was going to happen.

I stood up as I felt a bit vulnerable sitting down.
Of course alarm bells were going off in my head,
yet my rational brain was saying, “perhaps he just wants to chat about the sheep, or maybe he wants to say hi.”
As he got closer, I felt the tension; I kept Chantal close to me, my hand on her collar. I was standing, he was striding down that bush path, he went on past me, kind of nodded his head at me,
 I breathed a sigh of relief,
when all of a sudden, he turned and grabbed me.
Within a blink of an eye, Chantal lunged and bit him on his arm.
He pulled lose, started screaming and yelling at me, about me having an aggressive dog, all the while running away from me.
The level of commotion was high, I was shaken, Chantal was hysterical trying to drag me after this man, the collies, in the excitement were running around trying to gather up the sheep. I calmed my thoughts, stopped shaking and asked myself what had just happened?
I moved the sheep to a more public spot, and kept a look out all day. I never saw the man again. That night I spoke with the police and they would keep an eye out for him.
I do often wonder about the “what ifs”, what if I did not have Chantal with me that day?
What if she did not bite him, what would have happened? I also wonder if that man was just watching me for a few days, sizing up the collies, sizing up Chantal, waiting for an opportunity.
I realised then, that if things really did turn nasty, I could not count on the collies protecting me, they are just too invested in the sheep.
Having a free range guardian for animal predators is great, but it sure is nice to have one right with you,
next to you,
on a lead, at the end of your arm,
 to keep the scariest predators of them, all at bay.
Eric, me and Chantal.
Photo M Laarhuis
 And, even now, I still love being out in the bush, alone, with a flock of sheep, my collies and a sarplanianc by my side.

Happy Easter

Hope you find lots of eggs,

just like we do,

Friday, 29 March 2013

Chantal, another story

One of the very few photos of Chantal and I back in the mid nineties.
Photo by M.Laarhuis
Except for the very first story about our first livestock guardian dog, Chantal,
none of the other stories will be in any form of chronological order.
I do not "do" chronological orders as I do not know myself,
where I am on that whole timeline thing,
 I need facebook to help me out with that.

OK so, a while back in my blogs I hinted about a story that I would share with you;
how some legends talk about the sarplaninac's ability to "feel" the predators approaching
though the vibrations in the earth.

Many breeds of LGD have traditionally had their ears cropped to prevent them being ripped and torn during a confrontation with predators.
  Both ear-cropping and the use of spiked collars were described as a defence against wolves by Jean de la Fontaine in Fable 9 of Book X of the Fables, published in 1678.

However some cultures believed in doing the one ear crop.
Generally the sarplanianc was not cropped, however in some areas a one ear crop was done.
Legend surrounds this practise
and the belief is that they could better "tune in" to predators this way.

Now, other legends say that some sarplaninac can "feel" the vibrations through the earth when predators approach the flocks.
Now, I know that elephants have these abilities.

I do not know whether or not dogs or sarplaninac can "feel" this,
we all know that they have excellent scenting abilities,hearing and vision.

So, to get to my story;
while out shepherding our sheep, Chantal would be on a lead with me.
I did not want her chewing some poor hikers sweet poodle.
So, when we were out and about with the sheep, I kept her on a lead with me.
Should things go haywire with some killer dogs, then all I needed to do was slip the lead.

This did not happen often as regular walkers and joggers in this area knew about her,
and if they did not,
within a few minutes she greeted them in a typical sarplaninac fashion...
So, her reputation and respect grew and people would always put their sweet pooch on a lead while passing through and around our flock.
And, that was exactly what out goal was,
operant conditioning of the public that used this area!
Remember, these are public lands and I could not have her chasing off visitors to this area.

Now, on quiet days, the flock would be spread out at quite a distance grazing.
I could often be found sitting on a bank or higher vantage point overlooking the grazing sheep.
A collie or two or three would be waiting for a signal from me to be able to go and tuck in the corners of the flock.
Or, if the sheep crossed "the line" to be able to push them back.
Chantal would be sleeping, like every self respecting guardian dog should,
next to me.
Every now and then she would lazily open one eye, cock her head, glance around and would continue on with her sleep.
However, as soon as she spotted something out of place (all livestock guardians are "order nerds"),
or see a dog, or jogger, she would give such a low level rumble growl that only I could faintly hear it or feel it through the lead.
She would stare intensely at the direction where she saw something.
As the people or dog approached closer her level of growling would intensify.
The closer they came the more her body language changed.
From a soft rumble while lying down, she would sit up, eventually stand, going from a rumble to full on barking.
Grazing sheep on the Maashorst, Netherlands
As the people or dog passed by, she would quieten down and would go back to snoozing next to me.

Now, on more than one occasion she would seem to me to have it all wrong.
We would be sitting under a tree, I would be reading a book, the collies will be hoping for a sign from me and Chantal would be snoring away.
When Chantal would suddenly lift her head, stare very intensely into the distance, giving her trademark growl.
She would keep staring at a point in the distance, sometime sitting up to get a better look.
I would look, sometimes I had binoculars with me and I would gaze at the spot in the distance, and would try and see what had caught her attention.
Nothing, no movement, no sound, nothing that I could detect.
I thought she was seeing ghosts.

Sometimes she would lay down again but every few moments she would look again and mumble somewhat.
This could go on for at times as long as 15-20 minutes.
The distance that she would be looking into could range anywhere from 500m to over 1 km away.
Always, and I mean always, if we hung around long enough, she would always be right.
Eventually, either a cyclist, or a hiker, or someone walking the dog would  appear from the exact direction she would be staring at.

I could not believe this, that she "knew" that someone was coming from that direction.
Sure, perhaps she smelt them at that distance, but I checked for wind direction more than once.
Sometime people would approach from different directions at the same time and she would inform me about both.
Never, did she get it wrong and I was amazed at her ability to know that someone was out there, even though they were more than a kilometer away and certainly not visible.

In her manner of growling and barking ( she was not a big barker),
I could distinguish friend from stranger. My friend Toril would often come and visit me while shepherding.
Chantal would warn me that someone was approaching, yet her look was one of recognition.
Her demeanour was softer and more welcoming.

I could easily doze off to have a nap, and my early alert system would let me know if someone or something was approaching the flock.
She knew what her job was and what we needed her to do.

Perhaps, the legends where right,
perhaps she would feel the vibrations through the ground as someone started approaching us.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

A trip down memory lane.. sarplaninac Chantal

I was 24, and was shepherding sheep in an area called The Maashorst in the Netherlands.
We shepherded our sheep in a nature reserve doing mostly weed and grass control in heather areas.
 When I say "Shepherd,"
 I mean that we would take our flock out grazing for
7-9 hours a day, watching them eat.
We guided what they ate and when they ate by taking them to areas where certain weeds needed to be overgrazed, or by lightly grazing the heather areas.
We used our border collies to keep the flock where we needed them and did everything on foot.

The Netherlands do not have any predators larger than a fox.
Our biggest problem was people who took their beloved dog for a walk and would then let him
"play" with the sheep.
This often resulted in ears being ripped off, udders slashed, broken legs and other horrendous injuries, and us having to euthanize the poor sheep.

Now, Dutch law is different from Canadian law.
You cannot just go out and shoot the livestock killing dog.
No, you would first have to catch the dog ( most times impossible), then prove that he was killing or maiming your stock, you would then hand him back to the owner and hope that their insurance would pay for the damage.

Most of the time, this did not happen,
it  become a large cost to us and our small grazing company.
Not only were the monetary loses a blow,
but you also had to go through the heart break of seeing your sheep mauled and being powerless to do something about it.

This is when we decided to look into livestock guardian dogs.
We read what we could find.
Remember this was the before the internet got going.
So research involved breed books, letter writting and other lengthy methods.
The most influential piece of (printed paper) research and information that I could acquire was the research done by the Ray and Lorna Coppinger with the Hampshire college.
In this paper ( I still have it!) they discussed raising, training, problems and looked at various breeds.

After pouring over all this information we decided to try and find a Sharplaninatz (or Charplaninatz or Sarplaninac or Yugoslavian Shepherd Dog...). for our flock.
Unfortunatly, our search (early 1990's) coincided with the disintegration of Yugoslavia,
  and the war in the Balkans was raging.

Finding a sarplaninac  in its country of origin was just not a possibility at that time.
We had been in contact with some people that had acquired a few sarplaninac from Yugoslavia before the war.
These people ( Marjolein and Karl Laarhuis), were instrumental in helping us find a sarplaninac.
We evenentually managed in 1994 to get our first Sarplaninac.
She was no cute, cuddly pup.
This was an adult dog who needed to be re homed due to health issues of the owners.
We drove to Belgium to visit with the people and to look at the dog.
We were slightly intimidated when we first saw their dogs,
especially once we realised that the fencing was in a poor state...

We had some wine, talked dogs and were introduced to Chantal.
As the Belgium's would say : "Chantaleke", ( little Chantal).
We knew that she was registered but had no idea how old she was.
She was somewhere between 5-7 years old we estimated.
She was not huge, however she commanded respect.
And, we showed her the utmost respect.

Now, Chantal came to us and we were totally clueless about sheep guardian dogs.
Yes, we knew about  border collies,
but this did not prepare us for a sarplaninac,
nor  livestock guardian,
let alone both all at once!

So, in our ignorance we dumped poor Chantaleke in amongst our terrified flock.
She had never been  with any livestock before.
She had never, in her life even seen a sheep before, she met us.
She was first a show dog, then bred a litter or two and finally a home guardian.

Now, all of a sudden we wanted her to be "bonded" with the stock and do her job.
Our sheep thought we had gone mad putting a wolf in the pen with them!
Lucky, for us, she settled right in and just started doing her job.
No fuss, no issues, no drama.
The sheep calmed down and grew accoustomed to having her around.

We thought having a LGD was a breeze in comparison to the border collies.
I KNOW now that we got lucky.
We had hit the proverbial jackpot, with her.
We just did not appreciate it enough at that moment.
In hindsight, I think we should have erected a monument in honor of her.

She turned out to be an awesome dog.
She is the reason why we now have 8 of them.
Our experiences with her, sold us on the breed.

I will in, a few more blogs share some more stories and anecdotes about her.
perhaps this is my way to pay tribute to her.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Great News..

The first day of spring is one thing,
and the first spring day is another.
The difference between them is sometimes as great as a month.
~Henry Van Dyke
 Great news..
It is spring.

Not here..
 but somewhere in the world.

We are in the midst of a "Spring Storm".
Can somebody explain the difference to me
between a spring and winter storm?
Some images from this week..
Blowing snow

Even the sheep are running from old man winter.

There is a vehicle under the snow...
This was that one nice day in march,
when you think spring might be on the way,
only to have those happy thoughts crushed by another dump of snow and minus 22 in the morning.

"No winter lasts forever; no spring skips its turn."~Hal Borland

I personally, do not think Hal Borland ever lived in northern Alberta!

Thursday, 14 March 2013

This is what they do..

I have some really bad phone pictures to share today.
This blog is not about the quality of the photo but more the story it is telling.

Most of the photos you see of my dogs are of the dogs laying in the hay, with the sheep, having a nap at the bale feeder, hanging out with the stock or portrait kind of photo's.

The times when they are on high alert I do not have a camera with me
or they are so far away it does not make sense to snap a picture.

So, we had (another) snow storm roll in,
that dumped even more snow on us.

Everyday I drive out with a grain hopper and feed some grain to the ewes.
I turn out the grain and then let the sheep out to eat while I go and feed the cows.

 The sheep are orderly about this process.

By the time the cows and calves are fed, the sheep are pretty much finished with the grain and so can be let back in the pasture.

Yesterday, as soon as the sheep filed back in, the dogs were on high alert.

They immediately rushed to the head of the flock,
staring out into the mist, snowy distance,
giving a few warning barks.
The sheep seem to understand the implications and remained behind the dogs until the dog decided that all was clear.

For those that do not see too well..
Now, I have been seeing a number of coyotes in the back field recently,
so this could have just been a coyote walking along.

It amazes me, how well the dogs can see, hear, smell and understand the level of threat at such large distances.
There are legends about the sarplaninacs ability to "feel" the predators walk
though the vibrations in the earth.
(I will share a story about our Chantal, our first sarplaninac, and this ability sometime..)

They know that coyote (or whatever it is) is out there,
they know he is no imminent threat,
they just warn.
This is what their job consists of for 90% of the time;
watch, look, warn, posture, confront.

The sheep understand and respect this.
The dogs are alert, aware and calm.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Irritating border collie owners

I am one of those irritating border collie owners,
that like to make their collies jump up and pose on everything.
Not, only that, but the dog then has to stand while I snap a photo.

Lad is my buddy and has to suffer through these indignation's on a regular basis.
What makes it all so much worse is that he HATES having his picture taken.
I was once reading on a photography site about taking pictures of your child.
Taking pictures of a child or a beloved animal boils down to the same thing.
The advice was, amongst a whole list,  to make sure:
  • the "subject" is in the mood
  • have fun
  • don't take too many pictures or make the session too long
  • Don't force poses
  • Respect their wishes
Yeah right, the ain't happening..

"Up Lad, go up the snow bank"
Good boy

"Now, hang out the window"

"and go up the hill"

"Pose on the old truck"

"Lad, jump on the trailer"

" Laddy, please smile"

 "Lad, stop sulking."

"Lad, come back,

The End.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Mechanical insight..

...was not handed out to me.
I am definitely not as handy as this lass is,
with a wrench.

Oh, by the way, if you like all kinds of retro things,
take a look at my neighbours website
When I was at school, I had to do all kinds of aptitude tests to see where my interest and talents lay.
These tests would give me an idea in what direction I should be looking,  to find a suitable career.
Some of the things on my  list of opportunities were jobs such as:
Dentist (?)
even an agricultural teacher was on this recommended list.

The "other" list was jobs and vocations that I really should not even vaguely consider,
as I had/have no talent whatsoever for them.
On this list was things like kindergarten teacher,
auto technician,
tractor fixer,

Unfortunately, I have had to do a whole lot of these jobs  lately,
I had to get the 2012 taxes done and I have been dealing with some mechanical and technical issues.

The radiator of our tractor tore open,while I was feeding.
Martien (our technical hero and neighbour) and Eric managed to make a temporary fix (no duct tape),
while I ordered a new radiator.

And, then today,
the one side of the front end loader detached itself from the round thing,
you know that round thing that it rolls over when it goes up and down?

And, this needed fixing before I could finish feeding.
So, out came the wrench, and a heavy hammer
and by beating one side and then the other,
I finally managed to have it all back in place.

I have such a sense of pride when I do cope with these mundane technical issues.
I feel like I have conquered my disabilities..
that is,until the next challenge appears.

Sometimes, the nature of the problem is not really mechanical,
more technical.

that is not how this grain hopper should be laying.
However, sometimes when putting it on the front end loader,
things go wrong and then the hopper ends up like this..
(mostly it is my doing)

This  challenge is more a spatial problem..
How to lift the hopper up and set it straight, without damaging it or bending it or making it fall in an even more inconvenient position.

My first course of action is to utter some curses,
then have a coffee,
make a photo or two,
phone a few people,
text the photo(s) to some mechanically minded people
and then wait for some solutions.

Eventually, I will get some straps on,
add some chains,
push and heave,
 and miraculously it all falls back in place.

And,once again I can walk around with that sense of accomplishment.

Today, I had to detach a hitch on one trailer and attach it to another trailer.
All Eric said to me this morning was
figure it out ("it is logical" he added..)
and don't phone me.

My blogs may lead you to think that
 my days are  filled with
sheep whispering,
hugging puppies,
visiting with cowboys...

But, as you see, 
it is also plagued by mechanical, technical and spatial problems.

Monday, 4 March 2013

A measure of success?

Our local MD has a bounty on wolves in our area.
$300 per dead wolf.
This bounty was initiated by ranchers who were suffering enormous losses due to the wolves; they were being “overrun” by wolves.
The MD heard their pleas and decided to initiate a bounty program.
According to the MD this bounty is working,
356 wolves have been handed in for bounty money.

However, what is a “measure of success”?
Is it:
  • The total number of dead wolves handed in?
  • Or, that no cattle are been eaten by wolves ?
  • Or is it the ecological devastation it causes?
  • How about the complacency it creates in ranchers?
  • Or the wasteful spending of (my) tax payers dollars?
  • The short sightedness of the program?
  • The lack of long term sustainable solutions?
  • Co-existance?
  • The environmental aftermath of such a program?
  • The expansive growth of ungulate populations and other predators?
  • How about the number of illegal and fraudulent claims?

Cost of this program?
One hundred and six thousand, eight hundred dollars,
(for those who like to see numbers:$106.800,-)
The program is still running.
Over a 12 year average [2000-2011], Stats from Alberta Wildlife Predator Compensation Program, the average number of cattle predated (by wolves) was 8.75 head of cattle in the High Prairie region, per year.

(These were the ONLY stats available to the general public, documenting predation numbers. I do accept they might not be accurate, let’s assume that these figures are not even close to correct, even if we triple the number, it just does not add up..)
I will let you figure out the Math yourself,
whether the payout is  proportional to the number of cattle being predated on.
That money, could have been  (better) spent on education and finding more effective and sustainable ways to help ranchers who do suffer the most from predation.
Oh, and despite this program,
calves are still being predated on..
how do you measure success?

It is a perversely human perception that animals in their native habitat are running wild.
~Robert Brault
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