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Stories from the valley

Tools of the Trade

Contributed by Dan Macon

One of the positive aspects of raising sheep (at least the way we do it) is that it requires very little in the way of equipment. Sure, we have electric fences and water troughs, but we only recently acquired an ATV. A truck and trailer are important, although we much prefer herding the sheep to hauling them – in many ways, I suppose the “equipment” we rely on most is our border collies! That said, there are a few hand tools that are vital to our work as shepherds.

Most of these tools are easily recognizable – a long-handled shovel lives in the back of my truck most of the summer. An axe hangs just inside the wood shed – handy for making kindling. A pitchfork hangs inside the barn door.

Some are a bit more specialized. During fire season, I carry some version of a fire hoe (a McCloud or a Pulaski) in my truck – thankfully, I’ve never had cause to use them. I also carry a sheep hook – a narrow steel hook on the end of a long wooden handle – for catching sheep out in the open. 

Like all equipment, these tools require maintenance. A dull tool is useless, as is a tool with a broken handle. Over the years, I’ve developed a habit of taking half a day (usually on New Year’s Eve) to care for my hand tools. I sand the wood handles and apply linseed oil to protect them from the elements. I use an angle grinder and file to sharpen the shovel points and axe edges. I inspect the condition of each of these tools.

Tool maintenance, at least the way I do it, is also a reflective time. I find that I enjoy taking a break from the long list of things that always need doing here (moving sheep, taking down electric fence, setting up new electric fence, etc.). I enjoy the smell of sawdust and linseed oil. I enjoy keeping old tools in working condition. And, finally, I enjoy the fact that most of the “equipment” I need to be a shepherd can ride in the back of my truck!