Sunday, 31 March 2013

Shepherding and Chantal

The next story I want to share with you turned out to be one of those moments,
that when you look back at it,
you realise your life might have taken a very different course,
had things not gone the way they had.
 Me shepherding on the heather.

So, there I was, every day on the heather or  in the forested areas of the nature park the Maashorst in the Netherlands. A few trusty border collies, Chantal my livestock guardian dog at my side and about 4-500 sheep. Every morning, I would take the sheep from their night corral and walk them to the area  that would be grazed that day.
Djan, making sure the sheep stay off the cycling path on a winter day.

Some days, I  was closer to a cycling path or a route where people liked to walk,
other times it was a little more off the beaten track.
Never, in all my life have I ever felt scared while out in the bush.
Not in South Africa, not in the Netherlands and so far, not in Canada.

I have though about how inconvenient it would be if I broke my leg or something silly like that while out shepherding. 
Even then, it never bothered me.
In those days we did not have  cell phones, so if something happened, I would have to wait until someone missed me enough, to come looking for me,
or in a worse case scenario,  that the sheep would drift away and end up in someone’s yard and then the irate owner  would come looking for the shepherd…
Most of the time, when you are out shepherding you meet people walking the dog, or cycling, or having a family picnic.
Most people  would stop by for a  chat with me.
If I was given a dollar for every time people asked me “how many sheep I had”, I would be a rich girl.
I used to get quite a few visitors to the flock.
I had “regulars” who would come and visit with me, often older retired men, who remembered an era of more shepherds,
and cultivating the heather regions after the second world war in order to produce food.
They would reminisce of the old days, and I loved to hear their stories.  
We would often share an apple with each other, while we chatted away.
A jogger  on his way, would give a quick wave and keep going,
kids would want to run around and chase the sheep in a million directions,
the women, I met,  would often ask me more personal questions things like; don’t I get bored, or how do I managed to keep my house clean when I am always shepherding?
 Men preferred to talk about the more technical details; asking questions such as how long an area takes to graze, or what happens to the lambs?
I would have the occasional negative reactions; someone being difficult about putting their dog on a leash, or being impatient to be able to cycle past the sheep; however those were few and far between.
On a nice sunny day, I was shepherding in a remote area of the park. This was a place where you did not just bump into someone, it was definitely away off the beaten track. A great area to go if you did not really feel like answering questions from the public. The area was wooded, with quite a lot of grass growing under the tall trees. The area was slightly undulating. 
 I was sitting down reading a book, when Chantal warned me that someone was approaching. I looked around and saw a man watching the flock at about 300meters away. This was not unusual and so I did not mind him too much. He stayed quiet some time, just leaning up against a tree watching.
This is the part of the forest where my story took place.
Here Djan works the sheep to me.
The next day, I headed off to the same area with my entourage.  At about 11 am, Chantal stood up and warned me that someone or something was in the area. I looked around and spotted the same man as the day before. He was a little closer now and was once again just watching. I felt a little creeped out, as most people would either watch and move on, or watch and then come over for a  chat.  He disappeared into the woods.
Sometime later, he reappeared again in another spot.
He never approached me, just watched. I could recognise him in his light tan leather jacket and jeans. Chantal would be giving a low growl and  the odd woof.
He spent a good part of the day in the area.
I started to pay more attention to him and where he was.
That evening I mentioned him to Eric and he suggested I phone and chat with the police. I did that but they said as long as nothing happened and he was not doing anything illegal, there was not much they could do. I realised they were right, he was doing nothing wrong just watching the sheep eat.
Day three; back in my corner of the woods. Chantal was on her lead by my side. Three collies with me, spaced out watching the sheep graze. I was sitting on a little stool attached to my backpack. Chantal sat up and rumbled. I looked up and saw the same man walking purposely towards me.

I knew, and felt that something was going to happen.

I stood up as I felt a bit vulnerable sitting down.
Of course alarm bells were going off in my head,
yet my rational brain was saying, “perhaps he just wants to chat about the sheep, or maybe he wants to say hi.”
As he got closer, I felt the tension; I kept Chantal close to me, my hand on her collar. I was standing, he was striding down that bush path, he went on past me, kind of nodded his head at me,
 I breathed a sigh of relief,
when all of a sudden, he turned and grabbed me.
Within a blink of an eye, Chantal lunged and bit him on his arm.
He pulled lose, started screaming and yelling at me, about me having an aggressive dog, all the while running away from me.
The level of commotion was high, I was shaken, Chantal was hysterical trying to drag me after this man, the collies, in the excitement were running around trying to gather up the sheep. I calmed my thoughts, stopped shaking and asked myself what had just happened?
I moved the sheep to a more public spot, and kept a look out all day. I never saw the man again. That night I spoke with the police and they would keep an eye out for him.
I do often wonder about the “what ifs”, what if I did not have Chantal with me that day?
What if she did not bite him, what would have happened? I also wonder if that man was just watching me for a few days, sizing up the collies, sizing up Chantal, waiting for an opportunity.
I realised then, that if things really did turn nasty, I could not count on the collies protecting me, they are just too invested in the sheep.
Having a free range guardian for animal predators is great, but it sure is nice to have one right with you,
next to you,
on a lead, at the end of your arm,
 to keep the scariest predators of them, all at bay.
Eric, me and Chantal.
Photo M Laarhuis
 And, even now, I still love being out in the bush, alone, with a flock of sheep, my collies and a sarplanianc by my side.

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