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What is a Shepherd?

Tending to sheep is one of the world's oldest professions.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 16 April 2014
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A shepherd is someone who looks after sheep. Shepherding is one of the oldest occupations in the world, with the earliest documented instances of shepherding appearing in Asia. At one time, these nomadic loners were a critical part of the agrarian economy, although changes in the way sheep are raised have made shepherds more obsolete. In particularly rugged, dangerous regions of the world, shepherds can sometimes still be found at work.

Other herders of domesticated animals can be found, including swine, goat, and cow herds. In all instances, the herder is responsible for ensuring that the animals are kept safe and sound, and for managing animals belonging to multiple people, separating out animals as required. Herders must also be very resourceful, strong people, as they may be required to subsist in difficult conditions for months as they travel with their charges.

Historically, sheep were grazed openly on public lands. A shepherd might take care of a single large flock, or manage sheep belonging to numerous farmers. Some shepherds brought their sheep out every day, collecting the animals and returning them to penned pastures in the evening, while others moved sheep between pastures over the course of weeks and months, returning to their home villages only periodically. In mountainous regions, sheep were often grazed on high peaks for months at a time during the summer, giving lowland pasture a chance to recover.

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Classically, shepherds were young men who were willing and able to live a solitary life. In addition to managing the sheep, they were also responsible for controlling predators, supervising lambings, and providing veterinary care to their charges. As public lands began to shrink, shepherds moved to large estates, where they managed sheep for wealthy landowners. Eventually, the advent of secure fencing and the decrease of predators made shepherds largely superfluous, except in areas where sheep are taken into highland areas which may not be fully fenced during the summer months.

Shepherds can also be seen in impoverished regions of the world, where maintaining a shepherd may be less costly than managing fence lines. In other areas, public lands are still valued and maintained, and shepherds are retained because they are part of a traditional lifestyle.

The shepherd has become an iconic figure in some world religions, especially Christianity. God Himself is sometimes referred to as a “shepherd,” as is Jesus, with the implication that Christians are a flock which must be tended and cared for. Images of shepherds often appear in Christian iconography, and the term “shepherd” is sometimes used to refer to a religious officiant.

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