Sheep in the Foothills |

Sheep in the Foothills

Heather Hamilton-Maude
for Tri-State Livestock News
Sheep producers in Idaho chose to 'make lemonade out of lemons.' In response to unsupportive public attitudes about sheep on public lands they developed a fun and educational event for the sheep ranchers to mingle with townsfolk and teach them about their livestock. The Sheep in the Foothills event lasts an entire day, and includes information, hands-on activities, venders and history lessons relevant to the sheep who share public lands with Boise recreationalists each summer. The response of the event has been largely positive, resulting in a change in public mindset and attitude from negative to positive regarding the sheep and their guard dogs. Photo courtesy Idaho Rangeland Resource Commission

The fourth annual “Sheep in the Foothills” celebration was held June 14 in the foothills just north of Boise, Idaho. The event was developed in response to growing public conflict with sheep and guard dogs on public and private grazing allotments that overlapped with hiking and biking trails. The goal was to turn conflict into understanding and support.

“Education reaches across so many boundaries. You never know who you’ll find an ally in for future situations through understanding. We have fewer and fewer people making their living on the land, and we need to reach out to other parts of society who value the outdoors and make them a part of future solutions. We have found the best way to make friends is to have them understand what we do,” began Idaho Rangeland Resource Commission (IRRC) Executive Director Gretchen Hyde. The educational field day is targeted toward young families living in north Boise who frequent the foothills and are most likely to encounter sheep.

Prior to the event’s debut, area sheep weren’t making many new friends, particularly with the younger families who questioned why they were found in the same foothills they used for recreational purposes.

“Sheep have been grazing the Boise foothills for over 100 years. However, there are also many very well-maintained biking and hiking trails going through those same grazing allotments, and people are required to follow several rules regarding them, including staying off them when they’re muddy. Well, sheep occasionally crossed them in those conditions, and we were starting to have public conflict, with people asking things like, ‘well, why can they get away with that?’

“Then there were the conflicts that happened when bicyclists would fly through a bunch of sheep with their pet not on a leash, and the guard dog would chase them. That wasn’t well received either,” said Hyde.

In response, the IRRC looked to the success Hailey and Ketchum, Idaho had found in turning public conflict regarding the trailing of sheep through the towns to and from summer allotments each year into a festival of celebration for the history and heritage of sheep and sheep producers.

“We partnered with the Idaho Wool Growers, and the city of Boise agreed to host an event at the Jim Hall Foothills Learning Center. We play live music all day, bring in 4-H sheep projects and have four different wool, sheep and rangeland activity stations lead by members of the Meridian FFA chapter. It’s particularly beneficial having those young FFA members aid us in working with the hundreds of excited kids that attend,” stated Hyde.

While the kids also love petting and feeding sheep, the most popular aspect of the event is a sheep herding demonstration using Border Collie dogs. Demonstrations occur every 20-30 minutes, and while each demonstration only lasts a few minutes, they are loved by all.

“There are no fences or anything, and occasionally the sheep go out through the crowd, and it’s a huge hit with everyone,” commented Hyde.

Expert presentations about of the history of sheep grazing and benefits the animals provide the public are also well attended and received. Hyde noted that one benefit people usually understand and find relevant is the sheep’s ability to manage forage fuel loads during peak fire months. Most live close by, so the fact that those sheep reduce the risk of them losing their home to fire really sinks in for a lot of attendees.

Food is another key component of the day, and Superior Farms donated a new lamb sausage product for this year’s event that attendees could purchase for lunch.

“In prior years they have provided us with lamb wraps and leg of lamb. We try to do something different each year so people get a chance to try one of the products sheep produce. We always sell plenty of lunches, and heard rave reviews of the sausage this year,” she commented.

While the day itself is a huge success, ranking as the most well-attended “Second Saturday” event the city of Boise hosts each year with 350-600 attendees annually, the positive response is felt year-round for area sheep producers.

“We do still get a few complaints. But, today we get the most calls from people asking us when the sheep will be in the foothills each spring so they can go see them. If there is an issue, it’s often much easier to explain to someone who attended our event. People will also call or use social media to let us know about strays and ask if they were alright. These people now feel like they’re a part of it and no longer resent it,” noted Hyde of the positive impact the event has had on changing feelings regarding livestock grazing in the foothills in its relatively short existence.

Going forward she said the event plans to stay largely the same. One major component that was unable to be incorporated this year was a sheep shearing demonstration, and that is planned to be reinstated next year if scheduling and shearing season permit it.

“You can’t assume people know anything about livestock, and shearing is a perfect example of the misconceptions out there. Shearing does not kill the lamb, wool is a renewable product, it is actually beneficial to shear the sheep each year – those are all common questions and a big part of why we hope to reincorporate a shearing demonstration,” said Hyde.

She continued, stating she hopes other places and sectors of the agriculture industry will see the value of events like “Sheep in the Foothills” for educating the public in a positive way about the importance of livestock and agriculture.

“We would love to see other states and places do similar events. It’s a really positive thing, we find that the public wants to see the traditions we showcase kept alive, that they show support upon attaining understanding, and that they’re typically impressed to learn such practices are still going on. New people attend each year, and new people tell me over and over, “I had no idea…” each year. It’s been a huge success,” concluded Hyde.