Tuesday, June 8, 2010

People of Mitzpe Ramon - Isaac o' Bath, the Shepherd of Mitzpe Ramon

Isaac comes from Bath, England. He has a full mane of magnificent red hair that looks like it has just come undone from dreadlocks. His parents made aliyah when he was little, but returned to England when he was nine. He came back to Israel as a teen-ager. Isaac has recently been working as a shepherd near Meitar, northeast of Beer-sheva. There are many sheep flocks in the Negev, most of them owned and tended by the ubiquitous Bedouin, so it is interesting to find a Jew who is involved in sheep husbandry.

Isaac tends his sheep with a sawed-off broom handle, nothing fancier than that. When he first started he used to yell and scream at the sheep to make them do his bidding, chasing them hither and yon. He was soon hoarse and exhausted. Bedouin get their sheep's attention by throwing rocks at them, not much caring if they hit and injure them with the rock. A savvier shepherd taught Isaac the right way to tend his flock. A dog runs back and forth in a circle around the sheep, herding them into a circle and making them realize who is boss. The sheep then follow the dominant animal. Not having a sheep dog, Isaac had to perform this service himself, making him the dominant creature.

Isaac tends the flock, sometimes numbering over 200, himself. The sheep and their shepherd want the same thing: for the sheep to safely graze. Why can't sheep be kept in a pen and be fed hay like cows? Well, for one thing range or desert grass is free, and sheep meat tastes better from range-fed animals. This has been an exceptionally wet year, so the grass is more plentiful this year than in the past 10. The grass turns brown in the desert sun, but the sheep prefer it this way, since green grass gives them indigestion.

You may have heard (or not) that a flock of sheep should never be allowed to break into multiple groups if there is only one shepherd for the flock. It turns out that this is utter nonsense. There is nothing the sheep want more than to recombine, even if each has entered a different valley. All the shepherd has to do is anticipate where they will come out, give a whistle and they all come together again in one happy group.

At the end of the season the male sheep are slaughtered for meat, while the females are sheared and kept for breeding. Yet another instance of the shorter life span of the male in an animal species (sigh).

Isaac has given up shepherding for the time being, since being out with the flock has aggravated some severe allergies that he has. We wish him the best in his future endeavors.

Isaac o' Bath, The Shepherd of Mitzpe Ramon.

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