Herding Days

By Linda Dunk in Community, People

A quiet rural setting was what my husband Keith and I wanted, so we moved out of the busy city of Guelph twenty years ago. We found our piece of the beautiful Canadian countryside about a concesssion northeast of tiny Cedarville in what is now Southgate Township.
The house was one of those Eye of Ontario farm houses left over when the farm property was parcelled off. It came with a forested esker ridge on the west which sheltered us from cold winds, provided wood for winter warmth and shade during the summer. In spring wild flowers would pop up beside the gravel road, in the lawns and woods, different ones every few weeks, with the best being the trilliums. The large garden provided a variety of fresh vegetables and preserves. The clear view to the east gave us spectacular sunrises and sparkling rainbows. My personal favourite though was the autumn view looking north to a wondrous, glorious maple tree standing alone and tall with the grey skies of the coming winter behind it. Two walls and a cement floor were all that was left of the barn, but that was fine as we were naive city folk not looking to tend animals.
It was our ideal place, but life is always about change and so we moved away last fall. And now I worry that we are too far from the farms. Something special and unexpected happened over those years, a number of times. So many that I wonder if it was by design. The thing that kept happening was herding!
It started out small in the springtime of our first year, on the gravel concession road above ours. Two cattle got out by shoving the top rail off an old cedar fence. They were in the mucky ditch beside a fast running stream at the bottom of a hill. Without thinking about it (as I was hurrying to a job in Holstein) I stopped, shooed the bawling beasts back to their side of the fence, replaced the rail and went on my way. Always keep a pair of wellington boots in your vehicle if you live in the country!
The next time was more dramatic. I was going into Damascus one summer morning when right in front of me, about twenty sheep came onto the county road and halted traffic in both directions. A man in a pickup truck behind me said,”I know who’s they are. I’ll get the farmer. You herd them into the county yard there.” I am not sure why he thought I looked like I knew how to herd sheep, but I gave it a try. I quietly moved towards them from the rear, sidling up to them. There was a small turkey going along for the walk and I bent down as I walked and scooped it up under my arm out of harms way. A few other people came from Damascus way and together we got the sheep moving into the yard. The whole thing took maybe ten minutes and then the harried farm wife was beside me taking the turkey and saying, “Thanks. The electric fence went down in last night’s storm. I don’t know how you caught him. He thinks he’s a sheep and follows the flock wherever it goes!” Frankly, I don’t know how either.
One dreary day, I drove around our concession road when returning from work, just to see the results of a January thaw, and discovered three cattle moseying along the road. I pulled in to the nearest farmhouse to let someone know. Since no one was home I went back and herded the cooperative beasts along into a pasture and shut the gate.
This was not the only time that animals roamed the road as I returned from work in Mount Forest. Once, in summer, a white horse got out on Highway 89. I was put to the task of halting the traffic coming from my direction. The next was in the fall, further east along the same stretch of highway. Coming up behind an animal in the dusk as it ran on the shoulder, in that gangly manner of young animals, I thought it must be a big dog loose. As I neared I realized it was a calf, hard to see as it was the same colour as the dry bullrushes beside it. Again, a pickup coming from the opposite way stopped and the driver called to me, “I know the farm, that calf was just delivered today. You keep an eye on it while I go get the family.” I really don’t understand why men think I know anything about scared calves that would keep them from running on the road and getting hit by a vehicle, but there must be something since it keeps happening. The whole family came and eventually the calf was corraled in a neighbour’s fenced yard and I got to go home.
On the same highway but closer to Mount Forest there is a sheep farm. As I drove home this summer evening (animals seem to like to get loose later in the day, don’t they?) I realized a lamb was on the wrong side of the fence. It was trying to find the way back so I assisted it and replaced a board against the fence that appeared to have been put there to prevent such escapes. I left a note on a car in the drive to let the owners know as the farm dog definitely did not want to let me knock on the door.
These herding incidents did not always happen when I was alone (just in case you are wondering if this is a work of fiction and need corroboration).
Kathryn was with me one late summer evening as we headed south on Highway 6 north of Mount Forest. We spotted cattle who had broken a latched gate and were escaping their field. My friend said “I know who’s they are, pull into that drive.” Honest! She banged on the door but no one came so we drove back out to the now many escapees. I herded those by the gate back in while she kept track of where the others had gone. Soon other drivers stopped to help. The owner came and men managed to get the remaining wanderers into a field north of the turn onto the Ayton road.
But the time when the herding meant the most, was the day my husband and I were rescuers. The sunny winter day this happened was windy but with the crisp air that makes you roll down the car window at a stop sign so you can take a good deep breath. We were coming back from grocery shopping and going by a close neighbour’s farm. The family were heading out on foot, horseback and in their pickup truck desperately searching for the youngest daughter’s pet baby goat. They told us it had escaped it’s pen in the barn. Keith said we would watch out for it, and as we drove on he realized he had heard a noise at the corner when we had stopped. He turned us around and we went back and got out to listen. There it was, a plaintive cry, coming from the drainage ditch that runs out of the field and under the road. Quickly we both got to the source and saw that the wee thing had fallen into the open water and could not get out because of the thick ice. We could see it was going down for the last time, so my brave, foolish husband jumped into the freezing waist-deep water, grabbed the goat by the scruff of its neck and heaved it over to me on the bank. Somehow, with both of us soaked we managed to get out of the ditch. The baby goat was safe and we received many thanks from the family.
When our needs changed we moved to Mount Forest. Choosing this small town allows us to remain close to the our former rural existence, the welcoming people and beautiful scenery. I realize now that the experiences of the past several years made us part of the community. The herding was because the animals are a big part of that life. You don’t do it for thanks, but rather because it is necessary. It seems much the same as when urban neighbours help shovel each other out after a nasty spring snowstorm. Do I have to give up being part of one community because of the need to be in another? This is why I worry if that journey by design is done. Are we now too far from the farms and my herding days are over? I’ll let you know.