August 14th, 2006
Living with Sheep

Living with Sheep: Everything You Need to Know to Raise Your Own Flock.
Chuck Wooster. Photographs by Geoff Hansen.
2005. ISBN 1-59228-531-7

book cover: Living with SheepOn an August day in Texas when the sun keeps us indoors from 8 in the morning until 8 at night, Living with Sheep is not much on our minds. The thought of one wooly lamb causes prickles of heat rash; a flock, a swoon of claustrophobia.

“Who would want to read about sheep in Austin?” I thought as I pulled the book from the library shelf. On the other hand, my urban neighborhood is already populated with chickens, a goat, and a pig. Maybe sheep?

The answer is no. Sheep would be even more miserable in an Austin summer than the rest of us. The fact that I was compelled to read Living with Sheep from cover to cover is a credit to the writing–direct, elegant, informative, and humorous.

Living with Sheep is targeted toward the beginner shepherd, one who has no previous experience raising livestock. It’s one of those books that was written to fill a gap in the author’s collection when all he could find were highly technical books on sheep diseases. As such it sets out to answer “the big picture questions, the general cases, the wide range of options.”

Wooster approaches his efforts to understand sheep with the same curiousity and delight that mark the best travel writers. He became a shepherd without really planning to: some friends were looking to sell and he’d just moved to a farm. “Before I knew what was going on, I was in over my head and encountering adventure and intrigue around every corner.”

The nice thing about his tale is that he doesn’t assume that everyone has his same “Go for it” personality. So after introducing a concept with a personal anecdote he steps back and provides the big picture view of options–from deciding how involved a shepherd you want to be, to approaches toward butchering.

And, yes, after nine laugh-out-loud chapters filled with gorgeous photos of cute sheep, of advice for choosing among breeds, how to fence and shelter them, what to feed them, shearing, breeding and birthing, we face the inevitable “Chapter Ten: Slaughter and Butchering”.

“There is no point trying to sugarcoat it: killing animals is an intense and disturbing business. This is doubly true when the animals in question are ones you’ve fed and housed and raised from birth. All year long you’ve nurtured and cared for an animal and done your best to make it happy and healthy. Then you wake up one morning, pick up the proverbial knife, and do it in.”

So begins a thoughtful and beautifully written essay on taking responsibility for the food we eat. For us omnivores that means dealing with death. For the shepherd it means being the agent of death. The photo of a sheepskin hanging over the fence caught my attention. The caption said it was MolÉ–and I recognized the name as the lamb he had talked about earlier, the first one ever born on the farm, a singleton abandoned by his ewe that Wooster had to bottle feed.

Some final notes wrap up the book including a controversy that’s been brewing more and more lately in backlash to the success of Whole Foods Market. Which is better: local or organic? “My neighboring farmer’s hay, although rich and wonderful and harvested from fields that have been well cared for by his family for more than a century, is not certified organic…If and when I decide to raise my sheep organically, I will be doing so at the expense of my neighborhood farming economy, which I am reluctant to do.”

If you are considering getting sheep, this is a must read book for you. If you’re not, this is still a pretty good read. I hope Chuck Wooster writes more books because, whatever the subject, he makes it interesting.

Living with Sheep: The Website!


by M Sinclair Stevens

2 Responses to post “Living with Sheep”

  1. From Pam/Digging (Austin):

    Well, I can’t say I ever would have pulled that book off the shelf, but thanks for the overview. It actually does sound interesting.

    Pam, after you left this comment I found the website. So you can check the book out without checking the book out. — mss

  2. From bill:

    I might pick that out too. Even though I don’t think I would choose sheep.

    Bill, I couldn’t resist that cover photo. The neat thing about “Living with Sheep” is that it’s an interesting memoir of the author’s introduction to sheep as well as a “how-to” book. I was just fascinated by his stories. — mss