TENDING THE LAST FLOCK : By late July, one man is left in the hills above Chatsworth to graze 580 sheep and protect them from predators.
Peruvian shepherd Maximo Velasco raised his rifle and fired three shots into the thick billows of fog that gathered above Chatsworth in the predawn hours, as the cars below started trickling onto the Simi Valley Freeway.
At a time when the biggest worry for most San Fernando Valley residents was the possibility of traffic congestion, Velasco was concerned with scaring off coyotes that might threaten his 580-head flock.
“With the mist, you can’t see the coyote,” said Velasco, who has tended the same herd on Porter Ranch since coming to the United States from Peru three years ago. “They sneak up from behind . . . and carry sheep away. You don’t know about it until you find the skeletons and rotting bones days later.”
Velasco, 29, is among the last holdouts in a fading tradition of sheepherding in the Santa Susana Mountains, where the 16,000-acre Porter Ranch is believed to be the only area within the city of Los Angeles still used for commercial sheep grazing.
For Velasco, the 18-hour-a-day job--which earns him $650 a month--means not only financial comfort when he returns to Peru, but coping with loneliness, isolation, homesickness and myriad other factors that have forced others out of the business.
“In the beginning my body was here, but my heart was in Peru,” Velasco said one recent morning. “Now I’m accustomed to it.” With only a radio and two sheep dogs named “Negro” and “Pouchie” to keep him company, he lives in a one-room trailer provided by his employer, Calabasas rancher Luigi Viso.
Nevertheless, he views the job as a precious opportunity because it offers good pay, few expenses and the peacefulness of the countryside as well as the bustle of the nearby city.
“Here I’m close to the cars and houses,” said Velasco. “I’ve known people who had to go to the desert. In six months, they didn’t see a person. That’ll drive you crazy.”
The days of the lone ranger in the city, however, are clearly numbered, animal experts and sheep producers say. Increasing urbanization and the inevitable spread of housing development have decreased the amount of land available for sheep grazing and also introduced or exacerbated a host of related problems, not surprisingly pushing the sheep industry farther from the city.
“It’s like agriculture in this area,” said John Santos, district inspector for the Los Angeles County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office. “All things are against it--high cost of water, energy to get the water out to the fields. They’re losing more and more land to development. All these things work against the industry.”
Most of the sheep production in Los Angeles County is now limited to Antelope Valley, and on Porter Ranch, thousands of homes are slated for construction over the next 20 years.
Building has already taken place on the eastern fringe of the ranch, pushing the herd farther west. “Two years ago there weren’t any houses,” Velasco said. “The sheep could eat as far as you could see. Pretty soon there won’t be anything left for them.”
Already, evidence of urban life is inescapable for Velasco. The roofs of Monteria Estates, which offer some of the Valley’s most luxurious housing, rise to the south. To the west and north, a band of smog shrouds portions of the ragged, red mountain peaks. To the east, more housing perches on hilltops.
Burned carcasses of automobiles and abandoned appliances lie in gullies--sober testaments to the dumping and reckless joy riding that Velasco said he witnesses on weekends. And no matter how far back he climbs into the dusty foothills of the Santa Susanas, the sound of traffic on the freeway below rises like a river running high after spring rains.
Porter Ranch’s accessibility to roads, proximity to water and wealth of vegetation make it attractive to sheepherders, said Lt. Linda Gordon, an officer with the Los Angeles Department of Animal Regulation.
“It’s the same quality of grass as you’d find in a more remote area,” Gordon said. “To my knowledge, it’s the only area in the city limits that attracts sheep grazing.”
Velasco has company from January to May, when three or four other shepherds also graze their sheep at Porter Ranch. The Peruvian, however, is the only one to stay late in the year, and the other shepherds usually transport their animals north long before the hot summer months.
How late in the season the other flocks stay depends on the amount of rainfall, said Glenn Leavitt, a construction superintendent for Porter Ranch Development Co. Most flocks, however, graze there only during the spring months, when the vegetation is most lush, and then move on to fields of alfalfa or stubble--the remains of a harvest--in Northern California.
Sheep producers typically pay between five and 15 cents a head per season to graze their animals at other locations, Leavitt said, but the Porter Ranch Development Co. doesn’t charge shepherds or herd owners.
“They’re actually doing us a favor,” he said. “With the sheep, they keep the grass growth down, and that reduces the fire hazard.”
By September, when the lambing season begins, Velasco will move his herd from Porter Ranch to the corn fields of Moorpark or Simi Valley, where they too will eat stubble. Before leaving, they will be shorn of their wool, he said.
In the meantime, Velasco guides his flock to a different spot on the ranch every other week. With an old Ford pickup, he totes along the battered one-room trailer he lives in, which has “Schep Camp” painted on its side.
Every morning, Velasco rises at 5 to coax 580 sheep across three or four miles of dry grass and weeds. This morning, he injected an ailing ram with penicillin first and then called his two dogs.
Nipping and snapping, the two small mongrels roused the sheep from the makeshift corral where they slept and sent them jingling the cowbells around their necks through wild oak, sagebrush and morning glories.
The sheep are led out early because the summer heat diminishes their appetites by mid-morning. Most of the ewes bear lambs, and thin sheep would mean lean profits when lambs are led to slaughter in April.
Finding dependable people willing to rise early to spend the day alone with sheep has become increasingly difficult, herd owners complain.
“People don’t like the solitude,” said Larry Garro, executive director of the Western Range Assn., which often turns to foreign governments to fill shepherd openings offered by 300 members in 11 states. “They like lights and big cities.”
Animal-control officers said new housing development increases the risk of attacks on sheep by unwittingly attracting the coyote population with added garbage and pets.
The spread of housing has also resulted in more attacks by dogs, as pet owners abandon them or let them run loose.
“They can be fireside dogs, but once they get a taste of blood, their old instincts flare up,” said Santos, the county agricultural commissioner’s inspector.
Some Have Given Up
For some sheep producers, the obstacles have been insurmountable.
Jacques Icoco of Los Banos, for instance, gave up sheepherding after abandoned dogs chased 200 of his sheep off a cliff on the ranch in February, costing him between $25,000 and $30,000.
The 57-year-old native of the French Basque area, who has tended sheep since childhood, sold his 3,000 remaining sheep and took up cotton farming rather than risk another such accident. “After a while you get disgusted,” he said.
The first year that the Los Angeles County Veterinary Services registered sheep in the county was 1969, when 63,350 head were tallied, said Irvelle Black, a livestock inspector with the agency.
Local sheep production has dwindled ever since, the services’ count shows. In 1976, 56,000 sheep grazed in the county. By 1986, when the county ranked eighth in production statewide, that number declined to 39,763 sheep, with the majority in the Antelope Valley.
As morning broke, Velasco and his dogs herded the sheep along deep terraces worn through years of sheep grazing, over steep hills and through narrow valleys. Whenever animals strayed from the flock, Velasco sent the dogs flying with a flick of his wrist and sharp, one-word commands.
“Arriba,” (above) he called when a portion of the flock began to stray over a ridge.
Later, when several tarried, he shouted, “Abajo,” or behind. The dogs propelled the lazy sheep forward, earning a word of approval from their master.
“I take them with me wherever I go because I’m afraid someone will steal them,” he said. “The black one does the work of six or eight men. A cowboy offered me $1,500 for him because he works so hard.”
Even though coyotes never materialized, evidence of peril lay at every turn. Near a hole in the ground, Velasco pointed to the gutted, cellophane-like skin of a snake. On a ridge, he found coyote droppings. At one point, Velasco spotted a stray dog creeping toward the flock along a dry, run-off ditch. “Chasing the sheep,” he said, “is a game for them.”
Velasco insisted he did not know each member of his flock, but he did demonstrate an uncanny ability to differentiate between them.
Without hesitation and before the sun rose, he had picked the ram that needed the injection from a densely packed corral. On another occasion, he pointed out a ewe that had injured her foot the day before.
Velasco said of three sheep clustered together, “See those with the black faces? They’re never apart. If one separates from the others, it starts to cry.”
After graduating from high school in Peru, Velasco said he dreamed of becoming a prison guard in his country, but at 5 feet 2 inches, he did not meet the height requirement.
Before coming to the United States, he worked as a waiter and security guard. In his last position, he said, he was earning between $80 and $100 a month.
He refused to characterize life in Peru as representing hardship, explaining that although pay was much lower, so were costs and expectations. Still, he said, when an uncle offered to get him situated in this country, he didn’t give a second thought to staying at home.
Velasco, who came to the United States in 1984, is not certain how long he will stay in this country. He says he does not intend to remain a shepherd for the rest of his life. “I’d die. Ten more years, and I won’t be able to keep up with them.”
Even though three of his uncles got their start in this country as shepherds, Velasco said, he did not expect to track sheep when he arrived.
“I thought I’d be in the city working in a factory,” he said. “I never knew I’d be alone.”
Despite being raised on a ranch in his small hometown of San Jose de Quero, Velasco said, he found the work and the solitude difficult during his first year. He lost seven or eight sheep when they became blind after grass seeds lodged in their eyes--a common problem that he has since learned to cure, he said.
He woke up stiff in the mornings from the long walks, and one week he was too sick to leave bed. He also learned how disorienting fog can be in the foothills.
“One time, I got lost from 10 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon,” he said. “I left the sheep to take a cup of coffee, but I couldn’t find the trailer. At 1 o’clock, I began to cry.”
Nevertheless, he is happy with his job because he considers it lucrative.
“I almost clear all the money I make,” he said, explaining that his employer provides his food as well as the trailer. “I only have to buy my clothes.”
Out of his monthly $650 income, Velasco said, he sends at least $100 a month to his 74-year-old mother and invests between $300 and $400 in a house that an in-law is slowly building in Peru on property bought with Velasco’s savings from sheepherding.
After herding the sheep four hours in the morning, he makes three trips to a horse ranch in Monteria Estates to truck in the 1,500 gallons of water that the sheep drink daily.
By 1 p.m., Velasco had put in eight hours, but his workday was only half finished. After eating lunch and taking a nap, he set out between 3 and 4 p.m. on another four-hour graze with the sheep.
Velasco said he works seven days a week. Even on the rare occasions when he is able to visit one of his three uncles who live in Southern California, Velasco said he still has to make the 5 a.m. feed.
‘Sheep Don’t Understand’
“The sheep don’t understand that it’s a holiday,” he said. “They have to eat.”
Problems in finding people willing to make the sacrifices Velasco does have forced Robert Erro of Bakersfield to cut his flock from 3,000 to 400 sheep. For every good shepherd, “you get two bad,” he said.
Erro, 62, said “the straw that broke the camel’s back” came when he gave another Peruvian shepherd $1,200 to visit his family and return to work. “I never saw him again.”
Lorenzo Echeverrie, a 53-year-old sheep producer from Lancaster, said that development, high water and energy prices have caused him to cut his flock from 5,000 to 500.
“Housing is being built on farmlands, so there isn’t much stubble,” Echeverrie said. Of the acreage that has remained in production, much has been converted to onions, a crop that doesn’t require a lot of water or energy to pump it but that leaves behind no food for sheep to eat.
Even Viso, Velasco’s boss, complained that arrangements for grazing lands have become “unstable and insecure.”
“People will only rent month-by-month, like with an apartment,” said Viso, 56. “You used to be able to lease for at least four years.”
On a morning when no fog obscured dangers, Velasco climbed the highest peak in sight just after daybreak, leaving the herd momentarily to fend for itself.
He laid his rifle across a dusty patch of grass and sat on it, taking care not to put stress on a portion of the handle that had been fractured by a previous owner and mended with bandaging tape.
From his cozy perch, he looked down upon a storybook valley stitched with meandering dirt roads and stands of eucalyptus. This, he said, was where he would take his flock the following week.
“I’ll come up Tampa, over there where buildings are,” he said, pointing to the end of the thoroughfare. The clamor of construction on model homes could be heard over acres of empty range. “Then I’ll come out on this dirt road and go as far as I can. . . . I’m going to go to the last mountain.”