Shepherds Of The Desert

Date April 30, 2006 at 10:00 PM

Categories Local News & Sports


When Kerry Mower, a gaunt, bespectacled man, swings open the gate the black-faced sheep spill out of the pen and Tess, an 18-month old border collie, is there to greet them. Noticing a pair of ewes breaking away from the pack Kerry calls to Tess. "Go bye,"€ he says. The dog swings around the sheep clockwise and ushers the strays back to the flock.

With the help of Tess, Kerry is directing the sheep to a watering hole. Though only a pup, Tess is already better trained than dogs twice her age.

"Lie down,"€ Kerry says. The dog stops nipping the ankles of the ewes and drops to her belly. Kerry moves left, staying behind the flock, and says, "Away to me."€ Tess circles the flock counterclockwise and delivers the sheep to the watering hole. Tess wags her tail contentedly. Kerry nods his head in approval.

"The greatest reward a border collie can have is to be able to work sheep,"€ he notes. "And they really crave the handler's approbation."€

An employee of Santa Fe Fish and Game since the early "€˜90s, Kerry puts in a 40-hour work week like most, but his leisure time proves he's cut from a different cloth. Kerry is the type of man for whom "Home on the Range"€ was written, and he self-deprecatingly refers to himself as a hillbilly. But with a doctorate in Animal Sciences and a profound knowledge of livestock husbandry, he's far from uncouth.

A native of Wyoming originally, Kerry owns a 40-acre plot in Stanley, New Mexico, some 11 miles north of Moriarty. The area is nestled between the Sandias and the flatlands that extend all the way to West Texas. It is in Stanley that Kerry and his wife, Kathleen, raised their four children amongst animals most people rarely meet outside the supermarket.

Kerry breeds two different type of sheep: Suffolk and Shetland. The tall, well-muscled Suffolks are the curly-locked animals most known from petting zoos. The Shetland is a squatter, less domesticated breed. With large horns and streaks of orange in its fleece, the Shetland has a striking Nordic appearance, fitting considering the Vikings introduced it to the Shetland Islands more than a thousand years ago.

Kerry sells the majority of his lambs already butchered to private customers who appreciate a gamier, grass-fed meat. Several of his regulars, devout Muslims who slaughter the animals according to Islamic law, positively appraise Kerry's lambs after inspecting the liver.

The wool from Kerry's sheep is sold to local handspinning communities, and Mower claims to be one of the last people in the United States to shear his sheep using blades rather than electronic clippers. "I like the fact that using blades is a lost art,"€ he confesses. "I like the idea of preserving something that's been pretty much gone. It connects you with your ancestors."€

However, cutting fleece with shears isn't the only line of tradition Mower follows. He uses dogs to maintain his flock as shepherds have since pre-Christian times, and the commands he gives Jyp, Tess and Rosie are the vocabulary of Scottish herders. Though Mower claims that "sheep are smarter than most people think,"€ he won't dispute that his sheepdogs are far more savvy than any ewe, ram, or lamb.

There are three major categories of sheepdogs: drivers, gatherers and guardians. Drivers, like the English sheepdog and the blue heeler, are used to usher the sheep toward a designated spot. "The driver gets behind the animal and pushes it away,"€ Kerry explains.

Border collies like Jyp and Tess are gatherers and naturally more tactical. A gatherer works with the handler to keep the flock between the two parties at all times. The handler uses verbal commands to inform the gatherer which direction to move the sheep, and in this way the dog and the shepherd cooperate to maneuver the herd.

As Kerry explains, having both a gatherer and driver isn't strictly necessary. "Any sheepdog-if it's a good dog-can get to the point where it can gather and drive. The question is which comes first? Knowing what the instinct is,"€ (whether the dog is a reflex driver or a gatherer) "helps you understand how to train them to do the other."€

Jyp is Kerry's more experienced gatherer and at 12 she's slightly larger than Tess, though neither dog weighs more than 40 pounds. Both canines are more handsome than the familiar sable collies of Lassie fame. They have black and white coats, though the distribution of colors is so that one could be the photographic negative of the other.

The dogs are happier than most, due in part to their having a purpose, a job from which they derive a certain amount of pride.

In addition to simple directional phrases, Kerry teaches Jyp and Tess ancillary phrases. The ancillary phrases allow Kerry to more precisely communicate with the dogs.

"Sh-sh"€ tells the dog to be on alert, "stand"€ means stop, "there"€ means walk into the flock, and "that'll do,"€ relieves the dog from duty. The key, Kerry says, is to have a library of sounds that are phonetically distinct. This prevents the dog from mistaking one command for another. Kerry also has an alternative set of whistles that mimic the vocal commands for when the dogs are out of vocal earshot.

While drivers and gatherers require extensive training, guardians require a unique approach. "The instinct for the guardian dog is a completely different thing,"€ Kerry says of his guardian Rosie. Rosie is a 10-year old great Pyrenees that, save for her white face, could easily be mistaken for one of the larger Suffolk ewes. Rosie's job is to make sure predatory animals don't get close to the sheep. "The guardian dog is a protector,"€ Kerry explains. "It's very independent, and there's essentially no training involved. The only work you do is to get the pup bonded to the sheep."€ After the guardian is bonded, the handler sets the dog free and the guardian's sentinel nature takes over.

Pyrenees are known for their loud, resonant bark, and though Kerry half-fears Rosie may be an annoyance to his nearest neighbor, who lives a quarter a mile away, he appreciates the dog's garrulity. "I can't sleep unless I hear Rosie barking,"€ Kerry says. "If she's barking, I know she's doing her job."€

When Kerry first moved to Stanley in 1994 he tried raising sheep alone but discovered that life without sheepdogs was unnecessarily challenging.

"When we came here there was nothing,"€ he says, pointing to fences and mobile homes that dimple the horizon of Stanley. In the days Kerry speaks of, the grazing territory of the sheep was boundless. "Over the horizon the nearest fence is two miles away, and once you get past that you can go clear to Santa Fe."€

In the days before Jyp, Kerry was frequently unable to find the flock in the waning evening light. After one too many wasted nights wandering aimlessly with a lantern and a few coyote attacks, Kerry realized he needed help. He appealed to Kathleen, who initially opposed inviting dogs to the farm. Finally, she conceded. The addition of Jyp to Kerry's barnyard proved an immediate boon in locating the absent flock.

"I went out with Jyp one day and I looked around and thought, "€˜Where do I start?'"€ he asks. "The dog seemed to want to go somewhere so I thought, "€˜One direction is as good as the other 360.' I followed the dog and as I followed her she didn't wander, she went straight. And we went out about a mile and half and there the sheep were."€

Without fail, Jyp would lead Kerry and his lantern directly to the sheep. "There were a few times, when the night was so inky black that I didn't even know where the sheep were but I could hear them cropping the grass around me. So I'd send the dog and she'd gather the sheep and they would come into the light of the lantern and then we'd bring them home. I could always depend on Jyp to do that."€

Sadly, last year Kerry began to notice a decline in Jyp's abilities. "I didn't see a change in the dog but the sheep did, and I saw a change in how the sheep respected the dog,"€ he says.

Soon thereafter Kerry adopted Tess and starting training her for the day when Jyp became too feeble to work, but for a family where children learn the name of the family dog almost as soon as they can talk, an animal cannot be so easily replaced.

For Kerry, the threat of losing one of his dogs is akin to losing a trusted friend. Jyp, Tess and Rosie are more than the Kerry's pets, just as his sheep are more than just un-butchered meat, the coat he shears is more than just wool, and the open Stanley pastures are more than just dusty land.