In many ways this part of Colorado reminds me of Wales. Now you are probably thinking that's a daft thing to say but just imagine you are looking back home the wrong way through a telescope. The mountains in the distance sprinkled with snow, the deep valleys dammed with reservoirs, the Black Welsh Mountain sheep grazing peacefully. The principles of livestock farming are the same the world over, the scales and conditions may be different but we speak the same language. Desert Weyr does not fit the grand ranching stereotype we imagine from ‘over the pond’, the acreage is small. Nevertheless of paramount importance is the relationship between farmer, flock and dog - Bob writes more about this and shepherding in the UK in his book ‘Much Ado About Mutton’. The need for large dogs who could withstand wolf attack has long been a thing of the past but through the telescope, this time the right way round, the challenges here are bigger and more scary!
In the early stages of planning our USA trip we needed to speak directly to Oogie to discuss flights and itinerary. The seven hour time difference was not the only factor we had to consider. ‘We need to arrange a time to call’, she wrote, ‘but avoid 12 til 2 when I will be taking my turn on predator duty.’ Bob had himself just been outside dealing with a recent rise in the destructive squirrel population. But in Wales our constant battle with vermin, foxes and slugs pales in comparison to those the farmers tackle in Western Colorado.
According to the USA National Agricultural Statistics Service at least a quarter of a million sheep are lost each year to predation, and this is just the documented evidence. Coyotes, having moved right across and beyond US boundaries, account for more than 60% of these losses. In addition Ken andOogie have to deal with mountain lions, black bears, birds of prey and scavenging magpies and it is hard to accept that predators are on the increase due to their protection under The Endangered Species Act. Throughout the year dogs and fencing are the main predator deterrent but heightened security and human intervention is needed during lambing. The Desert Weyr flock is small and the dogs are able to quickly clean up the placentas but coyotes in particular are ever alert for a chance to move in to attack the vulnerable lambing flock.
During our stay we welcome a gorgeous, chaotic bundle of yelping fur to the farm. Sofie the Karakachan puppy (Belgian Sheep Dog) has arrived. She must be trained quickly to play her part with the four adult dogs.
So why are so many dogs needed on this small farm? Unlike the large ranches Desert Weyr sheep are organised into small groups of intensive grazing, ram lambs, ewe lambs, adult rams and adult ewes. (This system of totally grass fed sheep makes for succulent tasting mutton!) Each dog must be independent, at home with the sheep but able to understand the appropriate response to any threat. Sophie will need leash training, learn not to bite the human that feeds and cares for her but able to deal with predator threat and also get along with the other dogs. Traditionally used to move stock between summer and winter grazing the Bulgarian sheep dog puppy will grow into a powerful adult. She will also be effective against raccoons and skunks which carry rabies. Sofie spends her first days here with Becky, a three way cross - Polish Tetra and Mastiff-both Spanish and Pyrenean. For now they are kept outside the sheep fence but close enough to get to know them. Sofie will grow to replace Becky’s half sister Winnie, moving quietly now amongst her charges but only too ready to snarl and bark if we get too close. They watch as Teasel the Akbash tears around the perimeter, running along the fence chasing passing cars and barking at any potential threat. Then there's loveable Harri, the other Akbash. He has grown to trust us during our stay and each morning as we pass he presses his face up to the fence, seeking attention.
Today we have the pleasure of watching little Sofie being introduced to Harri who, with a fence safely between them, inspects her with curiosity, running along whining as she disregards him, then pausing for an inquisitive sniff. It's the same with the chickens. Sofie shows no interest in them and trots along on the leash as if they didn't exist then finds a far more interesting stick to chew on. This is good, she must not chase but, rather protect them in future and Oogie praises her enthusiastically.
Each of these guardian dogs, whether related to each other or of similar breed are independent in character and behaviour. They have become part of the Desert Weyr family. Oogie tells us that it is the dogs themselves that have trained the sheep. It is unusual for Black Welsh Mountains to flock but when the dogs bark, the sheep flock to the centre of the apple orchard while the dogs rush to the perimeter. Their intelligence is almost humbling.
As we walk up to nearby Terror Creek vineyard to buy a bottle of rather good Pinot Noir, we scan the road for tracks and the distant forest for signs of bear. We are gradually beginning to understand the forces at play in this wonderful terrain where Oogie and Ken, striving to protect the unique genetic resource of their mountain sheep, work in balance with the challenging environment.