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A day in the life of a shepherd

23 Aug 2020/Timbaktu Collective

What does a shepherd do the whole day?
He accompanies the sheep.
Is that all he does? Walk with them? Play the flute? Daydream? A dream job, indeed!
Have you had these kinds of thoughts when you saw sheep / goats dotted around on the landscape…? Or perhaps the shepherd as much as the sheep so much a part of the land that one may not have spared a thought to it even?

Ademma, Gopalappa (her husband) and Sangappa, a neighbor and Director of the Cooperative dispel such doubts.

Ademma & Gopalappa are “new” shepherds, in the sense that they don’t come from generations of shepherds. They are the landless agricultural labourers of the village, now members of Gramasiri, a co-operative of landless labourers, promoted by Timbaktu Collective; the sheep /goat rearing, an initiative for supplementing livelihoods that now has become a successful business venture for many families.

Ademma herself started with 4 goats. Within 3 years, she has more than quadrupled that bunch.
Ademma starts her day at dawn and sometimes even before that. She cleans up the sheep pen, fills up the water trough while her husband (Gopalappa) goes and brings tender green leaves for the lambs. The manure collected from the pen is composted and goes towards an additional income for them. The farmers are happy to buy this compost as sheep/goat manure is very good for the soil and land. Some of the farmers pay the shepherds Rs.200 + vegetables to pen their animals for a night on their land.

After finishing their morning ablutions and tea, Ademma gets to cooking food which she packs up for Gopalappa along with a bottle of fresh water. Too often the days are too hot.

Gopalappa, in the meanwhile, has checked over the sheep for ticks and other pests hosting on them. He has also cleaned up and dug out stones, sticks, thorns or the like lodged in the hooves of the animals. “If we don’t do this regularly, the animals could end up with unknown wounds”, he says. The sheep by this time have become restless, looking forward to being released from their pen, itching to range across the wide expanse of the Cherukuru wastelands.

Cherukuru of Roddam mandal is endowed with and surrounded by almost 400-500 acres of “wastelands” – a veritable haven for grazing. Perhaps this is the reason why, come evening, the road in and out of Cherukuru gets blocked for an hour or two. Traffic comes to a halt as the road is awash with the bobbing heads of returning animals. The air is filled with their bleats peppered with the deeper moos of cattle and once-in-a-while barking of the dogs. Yes, indeed. Cherukuru is rather unusual in that sense. The 45 sheep/goat owning families own over a 1000 head of these small ruminants, which become the traffic-jammers each evening.

So, Gopalappa takes off for his day-long wandering behind the sheep, sometimes taking the sheep to richer pastures, sometimes going with the sheep-wisdom that intuitively searches out the better places. There is huge tank bed just behind the village that is a favourite with the sheep and the shepherds.

Interestingly, this Serengeti-like-grassland landscape is also the residence of Blackbuck herds that run away at the sight of an alien jeep but quite peacefully co-exist with the local, domesticated animals. And, of course, where there are wild herbivores, there are the wild carnivores too. “One of the main things we have to do when our sheep graze is to keep an eye out for the foxes. They are a wily lot. They hide and come out of nowhere, scattering the grazing sheep in all directions. And if we are not alert to them, we would have lost a couple of our herd in the blink of an eye”, says Sangappa. He goes on to add, “The sheep are a peculiar lot. God knows what makes them run toward danger, but that is what they do. Once they sense the presence of a fox, they run towards it in panic!” So, yes, the shepherd has to be constantly alert, keep his eye keen and his ears tuned to the presence of a predator. Sometimes, it is not only a fox, but a more dangerous cat – a leopard – very rarely visible. Sometimes they follow the herd at a distance, watching and waiting for just that one chance that will gain him the day’s meal.

The herd has a pattern too, grazing for a few hours in the morning, then resting through the high heat of the noon, and then grazing once again for a few hours in the evening. “We need to find them water from streams or little kuntas, so they can have a drink before they rest. We also have to find a good shady place to rest.” And that is when the shepherd gets to rest his feet too. The long miles they wander tires him out. “By sundown, we start calling out, finding the more adventurous ones who have strayed beyond the herd… and we head home”.

How do they know their goats? Especially among the hundreds that are returning? Don’t they get mixed up? “We know each and every one of our animals. We can pick ours out amongst a hundred. Just like you can find your child even in a crowd of a hundred children! It is also the animal that keeps track. They find their group and their own home. The animals too are territorial… they don’t really allow animals from other herds to come in easily. Just like us humans”, he says smilingly.
Ademma is ready by then, the water troughs filled with fresh water, so the sheep can drink and bed down for the night. Besides the regular grazing, they also make special feeds and preparations so the sheep grow well and stay healthy. Puny, undernourished animals won’t fetch a good price. Then there is also the ever danger of illness, especially those that can spread like wildfire among the sheep, sometimes killing a lot of them. “The sheep also require sustained attention. They contract, like humans, a variety of illnesses which gets treated by the Vet from the Government Veterinary Hospital. Nowadays we go to our own sangham members. 9 members from the sangham have been trained to look after the animals. They give preventive medicines as well as medicines when the animals get ill.” Sangappa himself is a trained in first-aid for animals.

One of the major tasks that Sangappa pays attention is to the breeding. A good shepherd keeps an eye on the animals, knows their strengths and weaknesses, and selects the best ones for breeding. “A good strong seed is important for furthering strong, healthy generations”, he says. And in the same vein, some of males are castrated so that they don’t wildly procreate. “We also don’t keep all the males. We keep them for a year or two. The females are kept for longer until they are strong enough to breed”.

Sheep meat is preferred, but it is the goat that gets them better returns. Sheep and goats sell for Rs.5-6 thousand a head. “A goat has two kids at a time, twice a year but sheep has only one lamb, once a year. You do the math”. The math is pretty straight forward. A goat gives a return of 3-4 times the investment, while a sheep only doubles it within the year. Gopalappa sells his sheep at Pavagada, the market that serves the surrounding villages. He sells his animals once every few months and sometimes buys new ones too.

“The Gramasiri Co-operative has changed our lives. Earlier we had no assets to speak of, being landless labourers. Credit used to be very difficult for us to get as we had no collateral to put up against a loan. But now these animals have become our wealth, an asset against which we can get loans. A liquid asset too as we can sell the animals when we need money”, says Sangappa. He himself was very interested and instrumental in setting up the sanghas in the village, toiling for it. “With regular savings, timely loans and sheep/goat rearing as a business venture, the group has gone from individual powerless labourers to collectively strong entrepreneurs. Gramasiri Cooperative has around 700 members with a collective capital of around 80 lakhs, which has grown over the last 6 years. We are planning to set up a Collective marketing point for our members, where we will procure and sell the animals on behalf of the members – like Dharani Cooperative does for the farmers. Buying & selling like this will give us a better negotiating power. Who knows one day the lamb chops and mutton cutlets you city people purchase from cold storage will be a Gramasiri product”, he says smilingly.

Indeed. Cheers to that!

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About the story teller

The Timbaktu Collective

The Timbaktu Collective is working for sustainable development in the drought prone Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh (A.P.), since 1990s. The Collective works with rural communities most affected by chronic drought, unproductive land , unemployment and poor infrastructural facilities in the region, among them the landless, small and marginal farmers with special emphasis on women, children, youth and dalits.