BOOKS: A Shepherd’s Watch

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2006:

A Shepherd’s Watch:
Through the Seasons with
One Man and His Dogs
by David Kennard
St. Martin’s Press (175 5th Ave.,
NY 10010), 2005.
184 pages, hardcover. $30.00.

On turning the first pages of A Shepherd’s Watch and looking
at the pictures of the faces of five happy sheep dogs, we knew
intuitively that we would enjoy this book. As animal rights
activists, we were pleasantly surprised to read how author David
Kennard admired for her beauty and cunning a fox he saw trying to
hunt a lamb, instead of shooting her on sight. Here in South
Africa, such an attack would most likely have resulted in the fox
being shot, under an official declaration that foxes are a problem
species, to be exterminated or risk prosecution.

With humour and rare authenticity, Kennard relates one year
in the life of a North Devon sheep farmer. He takes us through the
cycle of the seasons, each with its own unique charm, natural
beauty and hardships. Toiling through lambing, weaning, tupping,
and all the other seasonal chores, Kennard reveals how dependent the
British sheep farmer is upon his faithful and hard-working sheep
dogs. The industry would collapse without the dogs, and Kennard’s
book is as much about his dogs as about himself. His five dogs ,
each with an individual personality, bring expertise to work each
and every day.
Representing England in international sheep dog trials,
Kennard describes a difficult exercise where, “Greg [one of his
dogs] was obviously aware that this was a brace run, and on arriving
at the sheep, had lain down and waited for a minute or so for his
partner to arrive without a command from me. When Swift appeared,
he simply got to his feet and moved across to his side of the sheep.
I don’t know how many people noticed his reaction, but it was
something that I’ll never forget.”
The two dogs had to move together and Greg knew instinctively
that he had to wait for his partner to get into position before he
could begin his own run.
Also of interest to us was the progress of a young and
inexperienced dog named Ernie.
Terms of trade have moved against the traditional sheep
farmer, whose flocks roam the fields and enjoy a relatively happy
life eating natural food in natural surroundings. Factory farmed
imports drive down the price of lamb to the immediate detriment of
the livestock farmer, and to the ultimate detriment of the health of
the consumer. Wafer-thin profit margins prohibit paying attractive
wages, driving away farm laborers, making the farmer reliant upon
his own family, on seasonal veterinary volunteers, and upon his
dogs.
Having farmed sheep ourselves, we know only too well how
much hard work is involved. At least the sheep enjoy some quality
of life before their shortened lives come to an abrupt end, in
contrast to the pitiless cruelty of factory farming. Yet some of the
methods employed by traditional livestock farmers are also to our
minds questionable. When there is a conflict between the welfare of
the animal and the financial constraints of the farmer, the animal
loses every time.
For instance Kennard castrates his lambs by the common method
of placing a tight rubber ring over the scrotum. This cuts off the
blood supply to the testes, causing them to shrivel over a period of
weeks and eventually, to drop off. This method is popular because
it is quick, cheap, and effective. But we have seen how much
discomfort the ring causes to ram lambs. Vasectomy under local
anaesthetic would be better for the rams–but far too ecostly and
slow for farming.
Kennard is well aware of the decline of the sheep industry in
recent decades, and the reasons for it. Indeed, his book could be
the swan-song of a way of life which is no longer feasible in an
overpopulated world.
–Chris Mercer & Beverley Pervan
<www.cannedlion.co.za>

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