Organic Broadcaster

French shepherds’ methods, wisdom offers inspiration to farmers raising sheep, goats

By Jody Padgham, MOSES

Scanning my dry pastures mid-summer last year, I pondered the feasibility of wandering with my small sheep flock about my rural neighborhood, allowing them to graze the still lush roadside ditches. The appeal of becoming a roaming shepherd was strong—the animals would benefit from a diversity of plants to choose from, and I would gain from the tranquil wandering along the quiet roads. Lacking a herding dog and the vast amount of unscheduled time I’d need to make my dream a reality, however, I never put my plan into action. Probably all the better, as my cow dairy neighbors would most likely not have been as excited by the activity as I was, and the sheep perhaps more excited than I could handle.

This desire to wander with my sheep drew me to The Art and Science of Shepherding: Tapping the Wisdom of French Herders, published in 2014 by ACRES U.S.A. “With this book we hope to raise awareness of what’s possible if people rely less on fences and grazing systems and more on rekindling our relationships with livestock and landscapes, linking soil and plants with herbivores and human beings,” the editors outline in the introduction. I opened the dense 430-page book with much anticipation. My excitement heightened as I saw that 34 authors were listed—indulging my love of collective wisdom.

Digging into the book I realized that my basic premise for taking it up was incorrect. While I learned a few things that will be relative to my own operation, the majority of what I took away was a deep appreciation for the revered occupation of “shepherd,” most specifically as it functions in the French Alps. I am not disappointed by this twist, as this book presents interesting background, meaning, impact and stories about this grand occupation.

The presentation of 11 “categories” or ways to be involved with sheep and goat herding indicates the reverence with which this book treats the subject. From the history of the French rangeland areas to description of modern day French schools dedicated to training new people in the craft of shepherding, (four of them!), this book offers depth of understanding from all angles.

The editors, Michel Meuret, an animal science researcher who became enamored by French shepherds early in his career, and Fred Provenza, a well-known advocate of behavior-based management of livestock, wildlife and landscapes from Utah, explain that their goal with the book is to create enough appreciation for the skills and benefits of shepherding that new people decide to learn and take up the occupation so that flock owners can hire them, creating alternatives to fenced flocks.

As I browsed through this book what came out is how much the herders know about and understand their animals, and how valuable that information can be to other sheep owners. Although the direct context of this book is most relevant for sheep owners in mountainous regions with open rangeland, I do think that anyone interested in sheep, or even other grazing animals, would be fascinated by the information presented. While most of us won’t be quitting our jobs or taking down fences so we can follow our sheep all day, there are things we can learn from the shepherds.

Several chapters involve scientists working directly with shepherds to quantify exactly what they are doing to manage their sheep. While the language can be tedious, the results are interesting as flock flow and grazing patterns are discussed.

The most interesting part of the book for me was Chapter 7: How to Stimulate Animal’s Appetites. “Shepherds move livestock from meal to meal during the day and across a landscape in ways that stimulate appetites, thus improving the nutrition, health, welfare and production of the animals. By designing daily grazing circuits, a skilled shepherd can stimulate appetite of individuals by encouraging the flock to use different forages from a mix of plants, some highly palatable and others less palatable.”

Editor Meuret interviews two experienced shepherds about their observations on how, what and why sheep and goats eat. Reported in a conversational way, the dialogue wanders from the palatability of dogwood (very!) and acorns (even more so!) to the reasons for sequencing forages in specific order. The two shepherds delight in sharing how goats and sheep are alike and different.

The idea for this book originated with a proposal from the Behavioral Education for Human, Animal, Vegetation and Ecosystem Management network (behave.net), an association of “researchers, livestock farmers, and private- and public-land managers from across five continents” with a goal to “stimulate sharing of scientific and experimental knowledge about how to nurture the health of soil, plants, animals, and people by interacting more skillfully with animals and people and more respectfully with soil, plants and the environment.”

BEHAVE’s mission is a strong and noble one, and this book represents their commitment to keeping important agricultural practices thriving. “With growing concerns over the high costs and consequences of technology, the practices of shepherds represent another way to manage livestock, wildlife and landscapes. Their approach is apropos given the rising interest in managing grazing intensively and using stockmanship to move and place animals,” the editors inform us.

A surprising combination of science and art, this book takes a serious look at all aspects of shepherding. Not a nostalgic, biblical, or third-world-only pursuit, this age-old occupation is given the recognition and study it deserves. Anyone with a passion for understanding sheep, an interest in French ways or access to enough land to consider taking on some elements of herdsmanship will want to take a look at this book. There is a lot to digest and thrill over.

One of these days I just might take my little flock down the road. I’ll be watching their behavior a little closer as I do.

Jody Padgham, the Financial Director for MOSES, raises sheep and poultry on her 60-acre grass-based farm near Boyd, Wis.

From the May | June 2015 Issue

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