Dawn Marie...The Smartest BellWether
By Patrick Shannahan

As published in American Border Collie Magazine...

As most of you know, sheep ranching in the west is much different that in other parts of the country. Producers put their ewes in bands which usually number 1,000 head or more. Much of the year they are constantly travelling to find the richest and best feed. And although many of the ranchers use dogs to help move the sheep, they also rely on other methods.

The bellwether is a really common sheep on most large range outfits out west. He is the leader of the flock and takes them to better feed each day. He gets his name of course, by the large cowbell that is attached to his neck by a leather strap. Clanking a loud noise with each step he takes, the ewes and lambs listen carefully to his direction. He has usually gone the through a number of grazing seasons with the flock, and almost instinctively knows where to go for the better feed. He most likely started out as a bummer lamb and was therefor accustom to being friendly with people and the herders.

Last year at the Treasure Valley Sheepdog trial, the organizers were able to get 400 range ewes from a local rancher. Most of the ewes were yearlings or young open ewes that had been managed in typical western fashion. The trial ewes were herded from the small town of Letha, ID to the trail site some 15 miles away. These ewes had not been broken down in small groups of five like we do in the trial, so the set out crew was nervous about how they would react to being put out by foot.

The morning of the trial arrived and the first few bunches were set out with quite a bit of trouble. The set out ewes could hear the other sheep and especially the bellwether as the next group was readied for the course. Tempers were short, as the set out crew wanted the very best for the trial. Finally someone observed that overtime the bellwether clanked his bell, the sheep that had been set out, instinctively ran back to the set out pen. "Get that damn bell off that sheep," yelled Don Helsley one of the trial organizers. Once the bell was removed, the sheep were settling, but still difficult to move the 100 yards to the set out point. Dogs and men were be coming exhausted, and the pressure became greater as the afternoon sun started heating up the canyon trial site.

Dawn Marie Couch was a member of the set-out crew that weekend. Dawn Marie helps care for a small ranch and in which she works her dogs. A good observer, Dawn Marie decided to try something on the set out crew that I think was quite ingenious. She grabbed the bellwether's bell and led the sheep out to the set out point by clanking as she was walking. The ewes were happy to hear the familiar sound and easily went to the point where the trial dogs were to pick them up. Once Dawn Marie got to the spot, she grabbed the clangor in the bell so it couldn't be heard anymore, and she quickly got out of the way. The rest of the trial, the ewes were happily set with Dawn Marie leading them.

I am always happy to hear stories like this concerning livestock. Most people would have been calling the sheep names and commenting how stupid the sheep were, as they didn't want to be set. We sometimes get involved and don't think of what might make the sheep more comfortable with the situation. I am glad that the set out crew that weekend had the insight to think about the sheep and how to use which once was called a detriment, turn it into a benefit that help all concerned.