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Sheep And Sheep-Herding
by [?]

With the introduction of fences, which are now coming in with tremendous rapidity, sheep-herding as an art is inevitably doomed. When I knew north-west Texas a few years ago there was not a fence between the Rio Grande and the north of the Panhandle, but now barbed or plain wire is the rule, and in the pastures it is, of course, not so necessary to look after the sheep by day and night. In Australia I have not seen those under my charge for a week or more at a time. While there was water in the paddock I never even troubled to hunt them up in the hundred square miles of grey-green plain with its rare clumps of dwarf box. If dingoes were reported to be about I kept my eyes open, of course, but they were very rare in the Lachlan back blocks, and I was never able to earn the five shillings reward for the tail of this yellow marauder. But in Texas there are more wild animals–the coyote, the bear, the “panther” or puma–and it is impossible to leave the sheep entirely to their own devices, even in pastures which prevent them wandering. Nevertheless, looking after them on fenced land is very different from being with them daily and hourly, sleeping with them at night, following and directing them by day, being all the time wary lest some should be divided from the main flock by accident, or lest the whole body should spy another sheep-owner’s band and rush tumultuously into it.

But the new and unaccustomed shepherd on the prairie is apt to give himself much unnecessary trouble. It takes some time to learn that a flock of sheep is like a loosely-knit organism which will not separate or divide if it can help it. It might be compared with a low kind of jelly-fish, or even to a sea-anemone, for under favourable conditions of sun and sky it spreads out to feed, leaving between each of its members what is practically a constant distance. For when the weather changes they come closer together, and any alarm puts them into a compact mass. I have heard a gun fired unexpectedly, and then seen some 2000 sheep, spreading loosely over an irregular circle, about half a mile in diameter, rush for a common centre with an infallible instinct. And then they gradually spread out again like that same sea-anemone putting forth its filaments after being touched.

The new shepherd, however, is in constant dread lest they should separate and divide so greatly that he will lose control of them. I have walked many useless miles endeavouring to keep a flock within unnatural limits before I discovered that they never went more than a certain distance from the centre. And this distance varied strictly with the numbers. At night time they begin to draw together, and if they are not put in a corral or fold will at last lie down in a fairly compact mass, remaining quiet, if undisturbed, until the approach of dawn. But if they have had a bad day for feeding they sometimes get up when the moon rises and begin to graze. Then the shepherd may wake up, and, finding he is alone, have to hunt for them. As they usually feed with their heads up wind it is not as a rule hard to discover them. If the moon is covered by a cloudy sky they will often camp down again.

The hardest days for the shepherd are cold ones, when it blows strongly. For then the sheep travel at a great pace, and will not go quietly until the sun comes out of the grey sky of the chilly norther, which perhaps moderates towards noon. But in such weather they do not care to camp at noonday, and instead of spreading they will travel onward and onward. They doubtless feel uncomfortable and restless. After such a day they are uneasy at night, especially when there is a moon.