Friday, October 12, 2012

Peavey’s sheep to star in parade

Blaine County flock will winter in California

Express Staff Writer

A flock of sheared sheep graze on rancher John Peavey’s Flat Top Ranch neat Carey. Some 1,700 of Peavey’s Rambouillet sheep will parade through Ketchum in this year’s Trailing of the Sheep Festival, set for this weekend. Photo by David N. Seelig

This weekend, 1,700 fluffy white sheep (and a few black ones) will prance down Main Street, bringing the summer grazing season to its official close. But for as much as they have the spotlight for those few minutes each October, relatively little attention is paid to the sheep themselves.

The parade—which features not only sheep but also colorful dancers and performers—starts at noon in downtown Ketchum.

The parade sheep this year belong to John Peavey, owner of the Flat Top Ranch near Carey. He said that he has two bunches of sheep, one that winters in Nevada on scrub and sage, and lambs in May. That band has already headed south, Peavey said, and the band in the parade this year will be heading to California to lamb in December.

“Right after the parade, we will shear them, and then in early November they will head for California,” he said.

Peavey said the reason he winters in California is because the climate is temperate enough for early lambing, and he’s able to let the sheep graze in fields of green alfalfa, rather than the scrub and sage the Nevada ewes graze on. The alfalfa allows ewes to give more milk, he said, though wintering in Nevada is far cheaper.

The sheep themselves are mostly Rambouillets, with a splash of Panama. Peavey said he prefers Rambouillets for several reasons, mostly because they produce a finer, more valuable wool than the Panama sheep.

Trailing of the Sheep Executive Director Mary Austin Crofts said most of the sheep in the valley are of the Panama breed, a type developed for rugged terrain by a Scottish sheep producer named James Laidlaw. 

Laidlaw came to the Wood River Valley in 1892. According to the University of Idaho’s Laidlaw Panama Foundation, the breed was developed from Lincoln and Cotsswald sheep crossed with Rambouillets. While Rambouillets, like Peavey’s sheep, are adapted to rugged terrain, the addition of some Lincoln traits produced a hearty animal with good milk production and a bigger frame.

Peavey said that in addition to selling his lambs, he sells the wool he shears off the sheep once a year to wool co-ops in Utah and New Mexico. Though Panama sheep are not known for their soft wool, Peavey said, the wool from his Rambouillets is fine enough for garments, not just for rugs or more utilitarian textiles.

Of course, not all of Peavey’s sheep have the same fine, white wool. Though most are white, he said he keeps one black sheep for each 100 white ones as a sort of marker.

“The herder has his sheep scattered on a big, big hillside. He gets out his binoculars and he counts the black sheep. If he has 16 where he usually has 17, he thinks, ‘I’m probably out some sheep.’”

Sheep tend to scatter, Peavey said, sleeping on high ridges where they feel safer, but might be farther away from the herd. Peavey said that when that happens, he uses his airplane to search from the air.

But the scattering makes it more difficult for Suzanne Stone, program coordinator for the Wood River Wolf Project, to keep the herds safe until parade day. Stone and her field crew have been sleeping out every night, she said, with the herd out Corral Creek. 

Peavey nearly doubled the amount of great Pyrenees guard dogs he has with the band, buying some from Lava Lake Lamb and Livestock with the help of Defenders of Wildlife, but the field crew has also been using high-beam flashlights, starter pistols and electric fencing hung with flagging to keep the nearby Pioneer wolf pack away from the herd.

“It’s been all hands on deck for the last few weeks,” Stone said, adding with a laugh, “The field crew is going to be very excited to celebrate the Trailing!”

Kate Wutz:

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