This is post three of four on our volunteer experience with Conservaçion Patagonica. Best read in order, but this one had a cute dog for a thumbnail, I get it.
We’re bouncing down the dirt road in our pickup trucks, in which we have squeezed six adults into each cab, when we spot some of the gauchos on horseback approaching. Paula, our volunteer program coordinator, hits the brakes and as if she’s seen her kids for the first time in a few days.
And, essentially, she has. Running along with the horses are a bunch of dogs — Border Collies and Great Pyrenees — that Paula has helped raise in a program to protect livestock without harming natural predators. The dogs are raised alongside sheep from an early age, even drinking sheep’s milk(!), and later protect the sheep from pumas hunting at night — a win-win outcome for the Park, as ranchers don’t need to kill the pumas to protect their livestock.
We stopped to cuddle with some of these beauties for a bit, but wouldn’t realize their full skill until a few weeks later when we participated in the annual señalado. Before I explain the señalado, it’s important to know that Parque Patagonia is all former ranching land. Conservaçion Patagonica has been buying up land from ranchers and returning it to its natural state.
But it’s hard to move lots of sheep, both physically and culturally. So, until this final year, the park maintained some 600 sheep to provide food and keep their ranching heritage intact. A particular point of cultural pride is the annual señalado, in which the gauchos corral all of their sheep, then pick up the lambs to 1. tag their ears 2. dock their tails and 3. castrate the males.
This is the fun we were in for.
We’d hardly gotten our cover-alls on when we were called to action. Chasing 600 sheep around in the field was nuts, but with a couple of gauchos on horseback, a few sheepdogs, and a bunch of us knucklehead volunteers yelling and clapping, we eventually got the sheep into their corral (not without falling on our faces a few times).
We then moved the animals into a smaller corral, pretty tightly packed so the sheep couldn’t run far. Our job as volunteers was to pick up the lambs, hold their hind legs so they don’t kick the gauchos, then sit their butts on a bench while the gauchos did their work. Easier to write about now, but it was so intense! Sheep “baaahhiingg” the whole time. Running around. Kicking. Squirming. Fighting like hell to break free of our grasp. The adults were as fearful as the lambs and they all huddled into corners — a mass of wool and hooves — making our job even tougher. As animal lovers, it was hard to stomach, but it really is for their own good, as docking their tails helps prevent disease, and we didn’t really deliberate. We all sucked it up and went to task, hoping we didn’t get too much blood on our faces but it certainly wasn’t my favorite experience, regardless of how authentic it truly was.
What really got to me was that a couple lambs died in the process of the señalado, suffocated by their own as they huddled in fear. The gauchos said it was no big deal, a few die every year, and their death won’t go to waste (asado, anyone?), but I later learned that the corral we used wasn’t the right shape (circle beats the square)…
At the end, we celebrated the day’s work with an asado (BBQ), of, what else… ? Lamb. Delicious, but again, tough to stomach with so much onlooking livestock.