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Bounty of the County: Lambing Time

February 2007
Modoc Independent News

By Valerie Lantz

I drove my 4-wheel drive down a snow-covered Modoc County Road. The truck hadn't warmed up yet. Clouds hugging the ground meant more snow soon to come. Up ahead I spotted sheep packed into pens. Two people dressed for the cold worked the sheep. The handlers wore so many layers of clothes that they looked like sleep-walking mummies. The sheep didn't like the pen work. I drove past them to avoid further distressing the sheep. Once past, I stepped out of the truck and tried a photo. The camera froze due to the cold. A wide irrigation canal was frozen solid too. I stepped back in my truck, glad the heater had warmed up. I drove on, thankful that my work would take me indoors. I thought about the conditions that sheep handlers endure during winter lambing time, the coldest part of the year. It's a challenge for sheep ranchers to find laborers willing to work with sheep year-round in the outdoors, many times in remote areas. Large sheep ranchers recruit sheepherders from all over the world to watch over herds in California and Nevada.

Winter weather isn't the only challenge sheep raisers endure. A classic struggle continues with efforts to control coyote depredation. Too many losses create havoc for the sheep rancher. In an effort to effectively control the coyote population, some Modoc County sheep raisers sought State law changes to allow private contractor aerial shooting. Currently, only the State Department of Fish and Game is allowed to use aerial shooting. California law limits coyote control methods. Poison, traps and snares are no longer allowed. The USDA Wildlife Services suggests (and offers technical assistance for) the following non-lethal methods to reduce damage done by coyotes:

  • Use net-wire or electric fencing to keep coyotes away from livestock.
  • Shorten the length of calving or lambing seasons.
  • Confine livestock in a coyote-proof corral at night when coyotes are most likely to attack livestock.
  • Use lights above corrals.
  • Remove dead livestock so coyotes won't be attracted to scavenge.
  • Remove habitats that provide homes to natural prey of coyotes, like rabbits, from lambing and calving areas.
  • Use strobe lights and sirens to scare coyotes away.
  • Use guard animals, such as dogs, donkeys, and llamas, to protect livestock.
Icelandic Sheep

Foul weather, coyote predation and difficulties in finding help represent challenges for sheep raisers. What purposes make facing those challenges worthwhile? Sophie Sheppard described the fine fleece used for high quality yarn from her ‘hobby flock' of Icelandic sheep. The Icelandic sheep do well in the cold weather at Surprise Valley. Lambing in April and May makes it easier on the sheep and their handlers. Their fleece grows to a 6 to 8” length by the time they reach 6 months old. The hardy, tough, dual purpose sheep produce fleece and meat. The multi-colored fleece also provides felting bats that can be made into blankets. Fall fleece produces premium fleece for knitting yarn. The Icelandic sheep's many natural colors provide lots of choices for clothing. The Icelandic's naturally short tail makes tail docking unnecessary. Sophie keeps her small flock in a barn at night to protect them from predators.

Bonnie Chase uses local lamb wool in her spinning and woven products. She uses fine wool from the Navajo Churro's double coat to make rugs and saddle blankets. The Navajo Churro is the oldest American sheep breed, originating from sheep brought by Spanish settlers.

A family living near Davis Creek raises a few sheep each year as a family project. Sheep sale proceeds provide additions to the children's savings account. A commercial sheep operation raising sheep for meat production near Ft Bidwell is owned and operated by Darrell and Deanette DePaul. They do all the work themselves without hiring additional help. They're Suffolk and Corriedale cross-bred sheep produce optimum meat quality and quantity. The sheep are bred early with lambing starting in December and finishing by mid-January.

Sheep raisers in Modoc County withstand weather conditions and predators to produce fleece, meat and income. A variety of sheep breeds selected offer diverse products. Both long-standing and creative approaches to sheep raising address weather, predators and range conditions.

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