All About Ewe: Basque Shepherds

I'm using St. Patrick's Day as an excuse to share with you one of my fondest, semi-Irish dreams: to become a shepherd. I realized my calling about two months ago. It all adds up: I love sheep, I love verdant fields and I love spending time with my dog.

Yesterday, I caught a Today Show segment on sheep herding in Ireland. According to the shepherd Meredith and Al interviewed, "If it's in you, it's in you." Clearly, it's in me. But after a cursory search on, I was crushed to learn there's nothing available in Ireland for a person with my skill set. I blame the recession.

I turned my attention to the United States, where it seems modern shepherds are called sheep producers. According to the American Sheep Industry Association Web site, shepherds banded together in 1865 to form the National Wool Growers Association -- the United States' very first livestock association. Perhaps the booming sheep herding business can be attributed to the Basques.

In the 1850s, Basques immigrated to the American West from the Pyrenees Mountains. Like many people going West at the time, they were after gold. Those who didn't strike it rich had to find work -- a daunting task considering that not many spoke English and had modest educational backgrounds. They found success with tramp sheep outfits. It worked like this: Men were paid for their labor with sheep instead of cash, then they used government-allotted land in the Great Basin to graze and develop their herd population. Soon, Basque immigrants were flooding into the area to become shepherds. They were willing to do the humble work of caring for sheep; consequently, they are largely credited with launching the U.S. sheep herding industry.

More relevant reading from Sheep How Immigration Works How St. Patrick's Day Works