For Want of Sheep

Locally Grown

For Want of Sheep

Photos by Keith Stewart

AFTER AN ABSENCE OF FOUR months, spent mostly in Ohio, George has come back to the farm for another season. We are glad to have him. His sprightly manner, boundless enthusiasm and love of action have endeared him to all of us.

Like most border collies George has a distinctive black-and-white coat and a sensitive, intelligent face. He is lean, muscular in a wiry sort of way, and he sports an impressive bushy tail with a white plume at the end. George is highly alert at all times and he is eager to please. He is also a happy, fun-loving dog but he does havea tenacious streak. He is just a year-and-a-half old.

George belongs to Chris Krivanek, a former employee. After three years on the farm, during two of which he efficiently managed our vegetable stand at the Union Square Greenmarket, Chris decided to try his luck in New York City. (He is now working for the Central Park Conservancy.) But a small city apartment is no place for a dog like George, so for a few months he lived with Chris’s parents in Ohio, but their suburban home also was a bit confining. Here on the farm, he can run to his heart’s content and Chris always has visiting privileges.

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Border collies are herding dogs. The breed was first developed to manage sheep in Scotland and northern England. I grew up in New Zealand, a country with more than its fair share of sheep (some 30 million today, down from 70 million in the 1980s) and border collies were the sheep farmer’s dog of choice. They are among the most intelligent of all dog breeds and, if properly trained, are responsive to a host of different commands, delivered verbally or via whistles and hand signals. (Chaser, a famous female border collie, is able to distinguish more than a thousand words). In New Zealand, sheep dog trials are common events where farmers show off their dogs’ skills at managing a flock of sheep by isolating an individual animal or dividing the flock into subgroups and moving them through free-standing gates and into different pens. It was always evident that the farmers and their dogs were closely bonded, sensitive to each other and took pride in their work together.

Unfortunately, there are no sheep on our farm for George to herd, just a lot of very slow-moving vegetables, herbs, and some fruit trees. Lacking sheep and other four-legged domestic animals, he has turned his attention to the 20 or so egg-laying hens and two roosters that also live on the farm. For their own protection and to prevent them from devouring our salad greens, the chickens are contained in a large enclosure. A mere step by me in the direction of the chicken compound is interpreted by George to be a signal that it’s time to round up the birds. He crouches low and darts toward the enclosure, his body tight and rippling, his senses concentrated, as he takes a lightning quick look back to be sure I’m with him. Even when I’m not intending to feed the chickens, I generally go along with George and play the game because his herding instinct seems so strong and in need of gratification.

George is still endowed with youthful enthusiasm, still a chaser of bubbles.

I throw a handful of cracked corn or kitchen scraps over their fence and the birds rush to peck and swallow as much as they can as fast as they can (when there’s a finite supply of food and twenty-odd competing beaks, time is of the essence). As the chickens chase the food, George, on the outside of the fence, chases them and tries to direct their movement. Often his enthusiasm gets the better of him and he lunges at the fence, sometimes scratching his nose on the wire mesh. For his own wellbeing and the safety of the chicken, I reprimand him when he does this but it is clearly hard for him torestrain himself. Protected by their enclosure, the chickens appear oblivious to George or do not regard him as a threat. Sometimes they even peck through the fence at his nose.

When there’s no action with the chickens, George turns his attention to other feathered creatures, most often killdeer and barn swallows. Both show up each spring to raise their young and feast on the many insects that live on this organic farm. Killdeer chicks, because they are hatched on the ground in open fields, are vulnerable to predators until they have mastered flight. The parents know this—if George gets too close to their young, the adults noisily swoop down to distract and lead him away. He invariably takes the bait and pursues them at great speed but always a little behind. Even when they’ve drawn him well away from their young, the birds keep running him, giving the impression that they take pleasure in this sport. The barn swallows also like to run George. They are extraordinarily agile flyers accustomed to catching their prey on the wing; they start out by dive-bombing him in mock attack, turning away at the very last moment. George doesn’t stand a chance.

George is not the only dog on the farm. Kobe, who came from North Carolina as a stray puppy, has been with us for more than 10 years. To the best of our knowledge, Kobe is a black mouth cur, the same breed that was the subject of Fred Gipson’s novel (and later Disney movie), Old Yeller. He is a powerfully built hound and hunter with a tan coat and droopy ears.

Kobe and George are best buddies and hang out together. They like to play-fight and are quite convincing, especially when they have an audience. New visitors to the farm are taken aback when, amidst fearful snarling and bared teeth, Kobe goes for George’s throat. But no harm is done and, moments later, the erstwhile adversaries lick each other affectionately, then sit down to rest.

Both dogs receive a bowl of dried kibble every night. If one walks away from his bowl leaving some food behind, the other, if inclined, doesn’t hesitate to finish it off. When it comes to real meat and bone, though, it’s a different story.

Each day, George and Kobe spend an hour or so roaming the 30-odd acres of fields and woodland allotted to them within the confines of an invisible fence. They hunt together, with occasional success, but George always leaves the final act to Kobe who loves nothing better than to clamp his powerful jaws around an unwary rabbit or woodchuck and violently shake the life out of it. For him it’s a natural meal. Once Kobe has eaten his fill, George will cautiously partake of any remaining morsels of bone and flesh.

Because of his age, Kobe’s energy level is not what it used to be. He spends a good part of each day reclining in the shade of a mulberry tree. He has long since learned that chasing birds is a hunt doomed to failure, but George is still endowed with youthful enthusiasm, still a chaser of bubbles. Only time will change that. I expect, though, that he will always yearn for a flock of sheep.

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