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Trailing of the Sheep

A sheep festival in Idaho made me realise environmentalists should support local ranchers.

I've written my fair share of stories about ranchers versus environmentalists. It's the usual tale: environmentalists don't like how ranchers use the land, or their hardline stance on wolves and other wildlife. And ranchers hate being told how to manage their livestock. But as a lot of grazing in the US happens on public land, it is a public issue. Historically, ranchers had ample room to graze their cattle or sheep, and the public said very little about it.

But in recent times, wild predators have been reintroduced to remote areas where ranchers raise their livestock; urban areas have sprawled over into would-be farmland; and climate change is making life increasingly difficult for independent farmers.

I spoke with a few ranchers at the sheep festival in Ketchum, Idaho, which was established almost three decades ago, in order to educate the community about ranching, and help the farming community and the townspeople gel a little better.

There was a common thread: raising livestock is becoming increasingly difficult, stressful, and near-impossible to do. There are a few reasons why, as mentioned above, but there's also the issue of foreign imports. The US imports around 80% of its lamb, and 70% of that comes from Australia, where land is far cheaper. There's no tariffs on the imports, so US farmers are competing with Australian meat – and there's little they can do about it. It opened my mind to the importance of knowing where our meat comes from. If US ranchers – which must comply with USDA standards about how their lambs are raised and slaughtered – go out of business, we'll be dependent on foreign meat, where there are little to no regulations about how the animals are treated and killed.

There's been a lot of strife between ranchers and environmentalists, but at the end of the day, their combined goals are far more similar than one might think. Ranchers want their livestock raised to be healthy and happy, and they care deeply about the land. "If we don't treat the land well, we'll have nothing for our lambs to graze on," rancher Tom Peavey noted. [Tom runs Flat Top Sheep Company with his dad John and son Corey.]

At their core, ranchers are environmentalists – they just don't subscribe to the label. They also perform a public service – they feed people, and on the whole they're not doing it for the money [profits from ranching alone are pitiful, and the margins are becoming evermore slim].

I've had my own prejudices against ranchers, and it is all too easy to criticise from the outside when you're not dealing with wildfires burning a quarter of your ranch, wolves killing 46 of your sheep that you had reared from birth, or competing against factory farms and dealing with drought.

As ever, taking the time to listen to these ranchers' experiences was an eye-opener, and a reminder that if we don't support them, we'll be eating meat shipped from abroad with no idea of where it came from, or how it was produced.

I could digress into ranchers and their conflict with wolves, but that feels like another post for another time. In the interim, you can read my piece 'A Way Forward With Wolves', which I wrote for bioGraphic after spending a week with cattle ranchers, cowboys, and environmentalists in northwest Washington.

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