Sheepherding in Armenia
Of all the things to do on my bucket list for Armenia as a Peace Corps Volunteer, the most interesting thing I wanted to do was go sheep herding.
I first got the idea to go sheepherding the first week I got to my village. The other Volunteers and I did a walking tour of our village and accidentally made a wrong turn and ended up at someone’s farm. Rather than let us leave quietly, they were curious about us and invited on to their land and asked about us. We did the normal “We are American volunteers and living here for two years response” when I noticed that at the corner of the farm were a large amount of sheep.
The Armenian word for sheep is pronounced voch-kar. There were at least 200-300 sheep there and the air was filled with bahhhhs and mahhhhs. We spoke as much as we could for only being in the country for one week then left. Over the next few weeks I saw sheepherders with their flocks around the neighboring villages and sometimes blocking traffic. Every now and then I would see a particularly large flock of sheep and what set them apart from the others I had seen was that they had someone on a donkey and a particularly large dog with them. They would always return to my village around a certain time and I realized that they were from the farm I met with the first week.
Since the weather was getting warmer in the evenings I noticed the men would sit outside on their patios facing the open street. One day I saw one of them attending to the other animals and with my limited Armenian language and vocabulary asked if I could go with his sheep. I realized right away that probably didn’t sound the best so I went back a few days later with my language instructor to help translate to them that I was a photographer and wanted to spend the entire day sheepherding with them.
They told us that they take their flock out every day, rain or shine. Their day begins at 7am and finishes around 6pm. They were all too happy to have me go sheepherding with them and even offered me a job too! I told them to let me sheep herd with them for a day first and then I would decide.
So my classmate Sarah and I met them at their farm at 7am and we saw new family members we did not meet before. As we waited near the patio area and spoke with the father the flock was getting assembled. Finally, the flock, the donkey, sheepdog, and three sheepherders came out. The sheepherders consisted of a grandfather, father, and grandson on this trip. Slowly we took the narrow dirt road to leave the village and into the open space. We were very fortunate to have good weather. It was overcast for most of the day and luckily the heat was kept to a minimum.
After taking the sheep across a small “stream” we came to a particular open area where they grazed in peace. We took our first break and got a chance to practice our language skills with the grandfather and grandson. Oddly, the father disappeared once we got past the major highway. The grandson was quite the football aka soccer player and was constantly on his cell phone most of the time. After some time, the grandson told me we would be leaving to another area to meet up with some others. I left Sarah behind with the grandfather and minutes later we came across a herd of 50 cows and a dozen horses. It seemed like they were related to each other from the way they laughed and joked around with each other. We stayed with them for about an hour before heading back to the sheep.
There’s so much free time to think when you are a sheepherder. The sheep take care of themselves and the sheep dog keeps them in line if needed. The scenery is quiet and here is when you have time to ask the deep questions you wouldn’t normally. Between the quiet moments I was taking the opportunity to do some group photos as well trying to ride the donkey. Not the most graceful of animals but this donkey in particular is quite friendly and likes to be around people.
After a while, the grandfather said it's time to move the flock to the nearby watering hole. All throughout the day we were taking turns covering different positions of the flock. Most of the time I was on the side of the flock to make sure they were not going astray while Sarah was holding up the rear and nudging them along. I learned that the most important tool a sheepherder needs to be successful is a 4 foot stick. It's quite handy and plus it makes look cool like you know what you’re doing.
Sheepherding has taught me that if you are leading the flock of sheep you must constantly walk at a steady pace for them to follow you. I only led the flock once because I was trying to take certain photos and the at time I stopped in the hope the flock would keep on going for the shot I was trying to get. However, the sheep interpret this as its time to stop. The sheepherder in the back (Sarah) was not amused by this and kept yelling at me to keep moving since they were trying to move the herd.
In the afternoon, I had other plans and could not stay out the entire day with them and it was time to leave. It was an incredible experience and I had a lot of fun. The family members were so friendly and welcoming to us. The pictures I took will last a lifetime and I will try to go sheepherding again. If you ever get the opportunity to do something like this, seize the day, and make experiences happen.