Friday, November 8, 2002
Herders and dogs show their stuff at Towle Field
Carlisle's affection for the sheep, the herders and the dogs that keep the grass, poison ivy and the buckthorn at Towle Field and Spencer Brook Reservation under control, drew about fifty residents to a demonstration of herding techniques on Sunday, October 27, at Towle Field.
Setting the stage
About a hundred sheep huddled together in their pen. A group of herding dogs of various ages, ranging from Nap the puppy to ten-year-old Molly, and two sheepherders, Dee Woessner and David Nishita, waited outside the pen. Bill Foshel, who owns the sheep and lives in New Hampshire where the sheep winter, was there too, explaining and answering questions. All but the sheep mingled with the spectators. The field was green, the trees were golden, amber and red, and the sky was October blue. It was a perfect fall afternoon for just about anything, and the interest and involvement of the spectators gave the occasion a special excitement.
Most residents know that the Carlisle Conservation Foundation, aided by about $8,000 in contributions from townspeople, first employed the sheep about two years ago as an ecological alternative to mowing conservation land and the Spencer Brook Land. Art Milliken, representing the Carlisle Conservation Foundation, introduced the sheepherders and the schedule for the afternoon.
Working the dogs
At first, Dee Woessner worked with the Border collie, Joy, to bring the herd of about a hundred sheep to the left, to the right, across the field, almost to the road and back again. In fact, they got so close to the road that Dante, the handsome white Italian Maremma guard dog, broke his chain and went after the herd, tail wagging vigorously, to assist Joy in bringing the sheep back into the field and away from danger. With the exception of Dante's impromptu "rescue," this was all done without any command but a few single whistles from the sheepherder. Once the sheep were in position, Joy stopped circling them and lay down, which Foshel explained "takes the pressure off the sheep." When Joy had the sheep back near their original pen, Woessner demonstrated how a dog can divide the herd and separate it into half or any number desired, a technique useful not only in sorting sheep, but for selecting out one that needs particular attention.
David Nishita, the other sheepherder, demonstrated how the portable corral works. This consists of 30 aluminum panels packed neatly on a two-wheel trailer, which collapses and forms a chute when it is unloaded. The dogs round the sheep into the portable pen and they can then move them into the chute and the waiting truck. Two sorting gates enable the sheepherders to sort them in the process. This herd had been sorted earlier in the day to take the lambs out.
"What's the hardest thing you have to do?" someone asked Foshel, and his response was, "Finding sheep and finding shepherds." He said this group of sheep came, by fortunate chance, from a breeder in Virginia whose grazing area was so affected by drought that she was considering selling the herd. Dante came with these sheep. Another question, "What kind of sheep?" was answered, "Katahdins and Dorpers." One person wanted to know about danger from coyotes, since the sheep are on the field at night. It turns out that the lightweight fence that separated the viewers from the sheep is charged with three- to four-thousand volts and is an effective deterrent. There have been no coyote problems at Towle Field. The guard dogs would also alert the shepherd to the coyote's presence.
A number of questioners sought information about training the dogs. "How long to train them?" one person asked, and Foshel answered, "You're never finished training them." Foshel told of how his dog Molly, now ten years old, had trained him when he was new. He introduced Tweed, a young dog who could round up the sheep, but clearly, not as neatly as Joy had done a few minutes before. Foshel thinks it takes two to three years before a sheep dog is a reliable work dog.
One of the most pertinent questions concerned the cleek, a pole with a kind of hook on the end. Nishita demonstrated how it is used to hobble an animal which needs to be inspected or singled out for any reason. He used it on a placid fat ewe, and showed how he could quiet it so he could check hooves, the glands in the hoof, the lanolin sacs, and so on. With the sheep sitting up against him, Nishita invited the children in the group to get up close and feel the ewe. A small crew of them did so, while she looked as contented and drowsy as someone in a barber's chair. When the petting was over and he released her, however, the ewe bounded off to the rest of the herd.
The program concluded with diplomas for junior sheepherders and with refreshments for spectators. The sheep will soon be going back to New Hampshire for the winter, but are expected back in Carlisle, Concord and the Minuteman Park next year.
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito