By JOHN T. PEAVEY
Winter is coming and the annual sheep migration is about to begin. To celebrate, thousands and thousands of people from all over the world will visit our towns to attend the Trailing of the Sheep Festival. Raising sheep is our oldest form of agriculture. How did it get started?
Man migrated out of Africa about 50,000 to 60,000 years ago. He left behind a continent dominated by large, powerful feline predators. There were the solitary leopards and prides of lions. In entering the Arabian Peninsula, he left these very large cats behind and encountered two new animals, bighorn sheep and wolves.
My wife and I were once part of an archeological survey team visiting Saudi Arabia and found numerous sites with petroglyphs showing an animal with the distinctive curled horn over its head. Often behind and below the stick figure of the bighorn sheep there would be another animal with a tail curled up over its back, obviously a canine, probably a wolf. Neither animal could have survived in sub-Saharan Africa. The bighorns were too slow to escape the big cats and those cats would not have made packs of wolves very welcome.
No one really knows where or how wolves started evolving into the canines we love today. I think someone found a lost wolf puppy and took it back to his cave. Wolves need to be part of a team and crave leadership. Man’s family became the wolf’s pack with man as its leader. It was a natural. At first, they hunted together. Then, over years, man taught the canine offspring to herd the sheep instead of killing them.
It was then that man was no longer a hunter-gatherer, a feast-or-famine way to survive. Now, man had regular access to skins and wool for warmth, as well as high-quality sources of protein. This vastly improved diet helped man grow bigger and stronger.
The first canines went on to start countless breeds of dogs but surly herd dogs were the first. These dogs enabled man to migrate with his flock—the highlands in the summer, to the warmer lowlands in the winter. This is exactly what many Western sheep ranchers do today. With his family, flock and dogs, he could migrate and spread across the earth.
Western sheep ranchers love their dogs and brag about them. We once had a border collie that we lost in moving a band of sheep. Our herder wasn’t too concerned but when lunch time came and the dog was still missing he started to worry. Supper time came and went—no dog. The next morning, the dog was still missing. A very worried herder enlisted help and with a pickup returned down the previous day’s trail. He remembered seeing the dog the day before as they were passing an abandoned homestead. Where the house had been there was still a cement-walled basement and trapped in it were 12 sheep.
They were going to die there except that the dog was lying there waiting for someone to come and help him get those sheep out of that hole. The sheep were saved because the dog had stayed with those lost sheep 24 hours with no water, food or companionship.
I sometimes tell people that if they are ever in charge of loading a Noah’s ark, they should put two sheep on first followed by two border collies and they might save themselves 10,000 years or so. If the range sheep operations are someday gone, man will lose something of great intrinsic value, forever.
Rancher John T. Peavey is the president of the Trailing of the Sheep Festival.