One of Life’s Little Paradoxes

Very few people today know anything at all about where wool and mohair “come from.”  In fact many people do not even know what “mohair” is.  To me and my “kin” that is like not knowing where dirt comes from, as it is so indigenous in our blood.  Wool comes from sheep; mohair, from goats. My heritage is from a rather small population of Texas sheep and goat raisers.  Our father, his father and his father were sheep and goat raisers, along with “running” (cowboy slang) some cattle.  Wool and mohair was at one time the leading industry of what is called the Edwards Plateau and Hill Country of southwest Texas.  This area is one of those amazing geological areas of our great State, having many creeks, rivers that empty into the Gulf of Mexico, hills, hills and more hills, and at the top of the escarpment  the Plateau, a rugged, rocky, cactus studded landscape where cows cannot thrive due to the lack of adequate grazing pasture land.  Mohair production in the Texas area reached its peak in the mid-1960’s, with some 4.5 million goats tallied.  However, wool production had a long head start, and a greater market, and that side of the industry peaked actually in 1943, with World War II demanding warm clothing for our soldiers, and nearly 11 million sheep were recorded.  That’s a lot of sheep.

The boy in the photo is none other than yours truly, holding one of my grandpa’s Angora’s, and in the background one can see some sheep.  Sheep and goats are all run in the same range, but sheep being sheep stick together and do their thing, while goats being goats like to stay together and forage differently.  Sheep prefer grasses, goats prefer bushes.  Sheep like low lands, goats frolic in the higher rocky hills and plateaus.

I have many memories from my boyhood helping my father with his herds.  Early in his ranching career, after returning from WW II as a highly decorated B-25 bomber pilot, dad lost several hundred of his goats in a cold rain.  Funny thing about Angora goats, if they have had their mohair sheared and are all slick with no coat, ranchers will laugh wryly remarking you could spit on one and it would freeze to death.  Goats are just extremely vulnerable to chill and will just die from a cold rain.  Sheep are a little more tolerable even when sheared, because they also will bunch up and huddle to try and stay warm as a group, whereas goats never figured that out it seems.  Ranchers are usually spending their down time listening to the weather reports, and if they hear of rain coming, they will often round up their flocks, especially the goats, and get them into small “trap” pastures to shelter under sheds from the weather.  Of course rains can pop up suddenly, so the success rate may not be that good.

When ewes and nannies (the female goat) are popping out lambs and kids (we call that “kidding” and “lambing”, this usually is happening out on the range, so they are very susceptible to predators and scavengers.  Red head buzzards love to circle on the air currents over ranch country during these times, and will land and attack still wet lambs and kids, attracted by the afterbirths.  I once saw my father shoot a buzzard out of the sky…..and the bird was way high……with his 30-30 rifle.  He was a dead eye dick with that old gun.

My father never had a good working sheep or goat dog, although we had dogs.  But he had me.  I was a pretty good goat dog actually, with the limitless energy of a young boy.  Even into my late teens I would run the hills driving the goats down the winding paths toward the pens.

Back when I was a boy, I saw many horrifyingly, grotesque conditions of our sheep and goats infested by what is called screw worms.  Screw worm flies lay their eggs on open cuts and wounds, which often are caused when the animals are nicked or cut when being sheared.  Although these wounds are quickly “doctored”, the flies will follow.  Once the eggs hatch into larvae, the horror begins.  No science fiction has shown me worse.  Picture half a skull of a living, grazing goat  being eaten away, exposing the brain, with maggots feasting and the creature having no way to even reach its own wound.  I have seen that and many others, and have picked the worms out to doctor the wounds. That goat with the infested head, I shot to put it out of its misery.  It was horrible.  Thanks to science, by the mid-1960’s the screw worms had been mostly eradicated by through a sterilized fly release program.

One activity that goes with ranching in general is the marking of livestock for identification, and the castrating of the male lambs and kids.  Lambs typically will have their tails cut off to a short length, to mitigate future problems.  Over my years I have heard so many jokes about ranch hands dining on the “balls” of cattle, I could puke.  My father found out pretty well that I did not take well to helping him with this ritual, and frankly he gave up doing it as time went by.  But I remember one hot afternoon of being “up close” the day he decided it was time for me to get some man training.  I would catch the lamb by one hind leg, drag it over to one spot where my dad stood, then turn the lamb upside down so I was holding it by the hind legs, apart and steady as my dad performed the castration with his razor sharp pocket knife.  Of course I was looking right into this operation some six inches from my face.  After the operation we would flip the lamb onto its feet and I would hold its neck with my legs so my dad could whack off the tail.  Yes, lots of blood and gore, but somehow these young animals seem to bounce back pretty quickly.  Maybe God saw fit to give them some pain protection that we humans do not have.  Anyway, I think Dad saw the stupor I went into after we had done a bunch, and thereafter he didn’t get me involved.

The paradoxes of being a sheep and or goat rancher are two (at least):  one is that few ranchers will eat mutton, although barbequed goat has some popularity; the other is that it is very easy to become attached to your livestock, the cute sheep and goats, especially if you raised them as orphans.  My mother and father raised many “sanchos” as we call the bottle-fed orphans.  In fact, during their later years, my parents would bring several into their house, spread out newspapers to catch the droppings, and feed them and keep them warm on the cold Texas nights.  As these orphans grew up, most were spared transportation to the auction, and just became pets, a few that my dad had spared castration, becoming big old, curly horned rams.  My parents love their livestock, but as ranchers understand, there is a time when these must be sold off to other ranchers or to the slaughter houses.   Mutton and goat meat of course remain popular, and increasingly popular, with folks from the middle-east.

As a small boy I used to enjoy helping gather the wool off the wooden shearing floor, and tossing it into the huge burlap sacks.   After you toss in a bunch someone has to get into the sack and stomp it down so the full sack has a maximum load.  I used to get lice from doing this.  And lots of grass burrs in my hands.  Sweet memories.

I long ago left the ranching life, the sheep and goat life, although I could have remained to be the next generation of raisers.  But other roads beckoned.  Today the industry is coming back I hear, and I hope other boys and girls get to experience some of what I did.  It’s “an experience.”