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Wild and Wooly

Sometimes, a girl just wants to have fun. I received an invitation from some experienced sheep dog people to join them in the fall round up of "island sheep". I had heard about this twice yearly event that happens on islands off Nova Scotia . I even read a book on it a few years ago: "Trafficking in Sheep" by Ann Barclay Priest.

I'll be clear that the method of raising island sheep is not anything like how my very pampered sheep are raised. However, it is a tradition in Nova Scotia."The earliest record of sheep in Canada is found in the records of De Mont’s voyage to Acadia (Nova Scotia) in 1604; Champlain established Port Royal the following year. It appears that the Acadians raised sheep from the early days of their presence in Nova Scotia." (compliments J.Wort/Sheep Canada)

Rounding up sheep on an island with a dog.....When I was younger I always imagined I would live on an island. I have dogs that like to move sheep. I like challenges. Sounded exactly like my type of outing.

I was already booked to do other things when the sheep round up was to take place so, of course I said "YES PLEASE. I will drop everything to be part of this adventure!".

The response from an experienced dog person was "Hold on , don't say yes until I describe just how difficult this is going to be. It's an experience that you will remember for ever, maybe hate half way through, but be proud when it's all over. It is an endurance hike with sheep really."

Did my response change? No siree.

So now that I was in on the game the preparation began. First, I had to choose which dog to use. The senior rounder upper, Marley, is best at doing outruns. That means she can run like the wind across a field in a large curve, circle up behind a flock of sheep and tell them, firmly, to "move it out". She then brings the flock right to my feet. The trainee dog, Gwen, is just learning that skill however she is a dog with absolutely no fear and has shown good ability to drive. No, I have not let her sit behind the wheel of my car when I go to town grocery shopping. Driving to a dog is standing behind a flock of sheep who are headed the other way and telling them to "move along now, nice and quiet and there will be no trouble". Since there was going to be a lot of "new" things and the senior Marley is not keen on "new" anything, I chose to use Gwen for the island sheep round up.

One Saturday morning Gwen and I left Petite Riviere at 4:30 am armed with lots of thick socks and dog equivalent of thick socks, vet wrap. I had been warned the terrain is rough, with lots of rocks . They weren't lieing.

When we arrived at Ingomar, Shelburne County, we met 3 other dog owners with 4 dogs. The owner of the island that we were to visit arrived by 7 am and it was time to leave land for the island. The dogs were lifted down into a large fishing boat that had an entirely open end. I wondered for a moment if the boat owner was cutting costs when he built his boat by not putting a back-end in the boat, but no, the end is purposefully open to push lobster traps into the ocean during lobster season.

We had to take care that the dogs stayed at the front of the boat. The boat ride to the island took less than an hour and we were treated to a lovely sunrise during transit. The experienced island dogs were anticipating the fun.

When we could see the island, dogs and people were transferred to a cape island skiff and shuttled to shore.

dogs keen to go

My dog, Gwen the trainee, was ready to work.

Gwen "where are the sheep Boss?"

Cape Negro Island, where we landed, is 800 acres comprised of 2 lobes of land connected by a narrow strip of land. Hurricane Juan washed over the island in 2003 so that at high tide the two lobes are separated. It is for sale should you have a spare $1,950,000 in your back pocket and fancy owning an island.

The skiff dropped us off on one lobe of the island on a rising tide so we were tasked with getting right to work. We needed to round up all the sheep that live on one lobe and join them with the sheep on the other island before the tide covered access to the second lobe.

Walking down the centre of the island to find the sheep we were reminded that at one time this island was a thriving community that included houses, barns, rock fences to hold animals and a lobster canning factory. In the middle of the island, buried in the woods, was a very real reminder that this island was "home" to people in the 1,700's.


NS archives confirms the reminder:

At the far end of the island we found some sheep eating kelp on the shore. Eating kelp is apparently what island sheep do. Spring, summer, fall and winter.

I was surprised to find just how fat the Cape Negro island sheep were when I felt the animals under their wool. These animals' digestive system has clearly adjusted to the unusual diet.

The sheep gathering simply meant patiently walking along the rocky shore, dogs encouraging gentle movement of the animals. Occasionally a dog and owner would wander through the woods encouraging stragglers to join the group walking along the shore. Gwen and I were tasked with driving the sheep, keeping them moving forward toward the far end of the island.

move sheep

One of the participants in the sheep moving marathon was wearing a fitbit and said we walked 30 kilometers on the rocky shore that day.

Once the sheep on one lobe were moved across the thin strip joining the 2 lobes of the island, the dogs encouraged them into the wooden fence pen that was built there years ago for the purpose of holding the sheep.


The walls of the pen have been built up over time as the winter storms wash rocks over the fence. The boards at the bottom of the picture above were once the top of a five foot fence, now buried in rocks. New posts and fence walls have been added and you can be sure that future generations will repeat the replacing of posts in years to come.

The walk around the second lobe of the island gathering sheep found a lighthouse remaining as a guard for fishers.

There apparently is some history to this lighthouse:

There were a couple of exciting moments during the roundup when the wild sheep made a dart for the woods to escape the roundup. One particularly wooly guy was successful in escaping and by the length of his coat he clearly is an experienced escapee.

During the fuss of trying to recapture some sheep I sent Gwen the trainee back to gather a young sheep. When she did not bring the sheep back I jogged back to see what was up. I found one of the fellows that was on hand as extra help standing on a hill. I asked if he had seen Gwen, if she was farther up the shore with the wooly guy and he said "No, she is right there" and he pointed to the ocean. There in the water was Gwen swimming after the sheep I had told her to get. The sheep had jumped in the water and Gwen, taking her job seriously, jumped in after it, trying to herd it back to shore. I called Gwen in and we all stood and watched the sheep swim along the shore, finally coming into land. I then sent Gwen down the rocky hill to drive it quietly along the shore to rejoin the group. I knew then that I made the right choice in which dog to use for this island challenge. Gwen is fearless.

When things calmed down, all, ..well all except 3 sheep including wooly guy, were rounded up and penned.

Then the island and sheep owner , John, had his sheep helpers separate the sheep that were to leave the island, checked the health of the sheep that would winter on the island and then let those that are to remain island sheep out of the pen.

It was amazing to see the sheep separate; those that were rounded up from the first lobe of the island trit trotted across the narrow connector strip and returned to their "home". The other group turned and headed inland for the lighthouse on the second lobe. Almost like they are two separate flocks on one island.

The day ended with the very strong young men , the island owner's helpers, loading a few sheep at a time onto the skiff. The skiff then transported the sheep to the large fishing boat. This all took a few hours as it was slow, very labour intensive work. The young men doing the loading of sheep were looking forward to Saturday evening refreshments as a reward for a hard day of work. I wondered if they would even see the evening or if they would simply fall in an exhausted heap once we hit the mainland.

When the seventy sheep being removed from the island were on the boat, the dogs and dog handlers squeezed on the fishing boat and everyone headed back to Ingomar. Upon arrival a man with a stock trailer was waiting on the wharf. The sheep were unloaded from the boat , herded onto the trailer and the trailer headed for the Atlantic Stockyard in Truro where the sheep would be purchased in the coming week's sale.

The day was good exercise with good company. I won't change my very different naturally nurturing methods of raising sheep however I did have great fun and was pleased to be part of this Acadian cultural tradition.

And Gwen the trainee? Gwen was officially named an "Island Dog".

gwen the island dog

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