Friday, August 17, 2001
A flock of sheep, one shepherd and three dogs go to work in Carlisle
If you weren't lucky enough last week to pass the Spencer Brook Reservation on West Street, where 333 sheep were grazing on the 3.5 acres of conservation land owned by the Carlisle Conservation Foundation, there is still time to catch shepherd Neill Yelverton and his flock on the Towle Conservation Land. Hurry though, for the sheep will be moving on to Concord today and then into Minuteman National Historic Park early next week.
The sheep belong to Dick Henry of Bellwether Solutions, a vegetation management company. They have been "rented" by the Carlisle Conservation Foundation to control noxious plants and weeds, especially buckthorn and poison ivy that are a threat to natural ecosystems on these two pieces of conservation land.
To learn more about this sheep-herding project, I spoke with shepherd Neill Yelverton during his mid-morning break last Friday.
He explained that his sheep, four- to six-year-old castrated Rambouillet rams, are the ones that make up his flock. Sheep, termed "Nature's Lawn Mowers," by the Grazing Power Project, when compared to other vegetation management methods like mechanical mowers, chain saws or herbicides, are quiet, natural and environmentally friendly. Wildlife such as birds, insects and other small mammals are far less affected by grazing sheep than other land-clearing methods.
Some questions and answers about the sheep that the project has been eager to address include: Are the sheep noisy? No. The constant baa-ing associated with sheep usually is between young lambs and their mothers. The flock used in this project consists of castrated males, called wethers, which make much less noise. And what about the manure? Does it smell? No. Sheep droppings are small, dissolve quickly into the soil and don't produce as pungent an odor as cow or horse manure. As living lawnmowers, sheep have long been used to control vegetation. In Washington, D.C., for example, sheep were used to keep the White House lawn trimmed before the invention of lawnmowers.
When the sheep finish the season, once the snow starts to fall, they will return to Ipswich, Massachusetts to stay on the Appleton farms owned by the Trustees of Reservations.
Shepherd Neill Yelverton comes from Rocky Mountain, North Carolina, a small town in the eastern part of the state, which at one time had been a big tobacco producing area. Yelverton graduated from North Carolina State University where he majored in wildlife science. Upon graduation he went to work for a tree service agency and then the National Park Service.
Last August, Yelverton, age 22, paid a visit to Chris, a close friend from home. Chris had taken a job with Bellwether as a shepherd and had found the job fascinating and addictive, and he especially liked working with the dogs. He thought Yelverton would be interested in this kind of work too. "I hadn't made up my mind yet about taking the job, but still I started, mostly spending my time building fences," said Yelverton. "Most of the work you do as a shepherd is building fences. We have an electrified, portable fence, 'a leap-frog system,' where we are always building a fence for the next area into which the sheep will be moved."
Meanwhile, a Scottish shepherd arrived on the scene with three female border collies, one of which was pregnant. "Once she gave birth to six puppies, we played with them from the time they were two weeks old until they reached two months. Now that these puppies were ready to go, I decided to take one. This was an act that pretty much settled the question of whether I'd stay on.
"It was impossible for me to talk myself out of taking one of the dogs. I had to decide between two puppies. I finally chose Pabst, the runt of the litter. He wasn't a sure thing. He appeared to be lazy and it wasn't the logical thing, but the dog had bonded with me and I just couldn't not take him. The parents of my dog had top-notch breeding; his natural instincts and his relationship with me, the shepherd, would be very important," explained Yelverton. Pabst celebrated his first birthday this week on August 14.
"Things worked out with Pabst. He is a very sensitive border collie. If I yelled at him, he would cower. He was very sensitive to being corrected. That's not a bad thing if the dog has confidence. It's important to build confidence and the dog learns what he can do," reported Yelverton.
When he was five months old, Pabst went to work with 1,000 sheep. He knew how to sit and come. He was trained on the job which is unusual for a dog to start a job with so many sheep. In the U.S. people get sheep for the dog, while in the U.K. they get dogs for the sheep, said Yelverton.
Yelverton has three dogs to work with his flock, one of which is a large guard dog named Gordo. All guard dogs are Meremmas or Great Pyrenees. Gordo, a Meremma, is used to protect the sheep and minimize human contact.
The two border collies, Pabst and Sam, go with the shepherd. Sam, the other border collie, is five years old and was raised and trained by someone else. He and Yelverton are not as close. Both dogs want to do what the shepherd wants them to do. They are eager to please. Yelverton says that shepherds spend much time talking about their dogs. He and his friends have observed that the border collies take on many of the characteristics of their shepherd. Where Pabst is meek and shy, Yelverton remembers that was the way he was growing up. On the other hand, his friend Chris's dog, Rock, is very nice, very playful and never gets in a fight with other dogs, much like his master, Chris.
There is work all-year round in Florida, and come June, work in New England begins. Once the flock moves to Ipswich in the late fall, there is nothing for them to do except to feed on grain feed supplement and later, on silage.
One of the hardest things to do is to find housing for the shepherd and his dogs. Luckily, Yelverton is sharing a house with a new employee of the Minuteman National Park Service in an historic house on Route 2A.
Both men and women work as shepherds and their days are full. When working under the power lines in New Hampshire, there are especially long hours. Here in Carlisle, Yelverton's day begins at 6:30 a.m. He works until 10:30 a.m., then returns two or three times during the middle of the day to check on the sheep, making sure they are in the pen and have enough water. He returns at 4:00 p.m. and works until dusk to prepare the sheep for nightfall. He is on call 24 hours a day. The relationship between the dog and the shepherd is very strong. Yelverton spends more time with his dogs than anyone else and finds little time for even a nap.
Those of you who missed the bucolic scene of sheep grazing on Spencer Brook Reservation or the Towle Field, will have another chance when the herd returns to Carlisle to kill a second growth in late September.
© +YEAR+ The Carlisle Mosquito