The border collies bound across the ground as winter hurls down one last handful of flurries on the open land.
Hundreds of years of instinct power the stare the dogs beam upon the sheep, intimidating the ewes to move wherever their shepherd needs them.
This shepherd keeps watch day and night, from delivering lambs as dawn breaks to grabbing a flashlight and guns when coyotes threaten the herd overnight.
On this blustery afternoon, she maneuvered through the muddy earth around the barn to unlatch the wooden fences as her dogs encircle the flock.
“That’ll do,” she calls, her voice equal parts authority and kindness. “That’ll do.”
The collies heed Alix Cleveland’s command. She is the boss on this 100-acre farm, where hundreds of sheep roam on the hills by Nicholson. And yet, she would not be there if it were not for those dogs.
“They’re what started all of this,” the 56-year-old said recently while taking a break in her farmhouse kitchen. “They’re what got me into sheep in the first place.”
Cleveland had wanted a border collie since her childhood in Vermont, where a family friend owned one she adored. She got her wish at 39, but then she realized the dog “needed a job.”
“I started training her to herd sheep, and then of course that meant I had to get a couple (sheep),” she said. “Then I had to get another dog. Then I had to get a couple more sheep.”
As the menagerie grew, Cleveland continued to work as a piano tuner and seamstress in Pleasantville, New York, where she lived with her then-husband. When the 9/11 attacks happened, however, she re-examined her life.
“I kind of said, ‘What are we doing? What are our lives?’” she recalled. “And I thought, ‘Maybe it’s time to start living the life that you like.’”
In the meantime, Cleveland had fallen in love with Northeast Pennsylvania during her travels to Hop Bottom for dog training. She found Branch Brook Farm, “and it all sort of made sense,” Cleveland said.
She moved there in April 2002 and started acquiring more sheep as a way to support it. Now with a roughly 200-head flock, she breeds mostly lambs for slaughter but also sells sheep to farmers and dog trainers.
“I love my dogs, and this is the life for them, but I really love sheep,” she said. “They’re just wonderful creatures, you know. They’re relatively gentle. They’re smart. They’re very funny. Most of mine are very friendly. And I love the mental challenge of breeding. I love the challenge of the lambing.”
Despite growing up in rural Vermont, the closest Cleveland came to the farmer’s lifestyle was keeping a pony on a nearby dairy farm as a girl. Trading in pianos for sheep required studying, and she even traveled to Minnesota to attend Sheep for Profit School.
“It is very hard to make money farming,” said Cleveland, who has a part-time employee and a couple others who help out occasionally. “And I don’t make a lot of money, but my business sustains itself.”
She has learned a lot from her veterinarian as well and now “can do almost anything veterinary to my flock that I need to,” including helping her ewes deliver their lambs, known as “lambing.” Her flock breeds three times a year — twice in the spring and once in the fall — and lambs arrive over several days. Video cameras installed in the barn show Cleveland, when she wakes every few hours overnight to check the progress, whether any lambs have arrived or ewes might have problems.
“I try to let them go as long as I can to have them naturally, but at some time you realize they’re not going to come out,” Cleveland said.
Delivering, raising and selling the lambs is “the hardest part of what I do,” she said. Many of her sheep have names, but she tries to avoid giving them to lambs she will sell for slaughter.
“I have to be really careful with that, because once it becomes, you know, ‘Bob,’ you just can’t put Bob on a truck,” she said. “You can put (No.) 172 on a truck, and you feel bad for a couple of days. But, you know, if it has a name, you just, you can’t (kill it).”
Some lambs will go to dog trainers who use them to teach herding breeds like her collies, while others will end up on sheep farms elsewhere. The sheep who remain at Branch Brook Farm provide wool for Cleveland to sell, and they breed.
Cleveland keeps five rams in a separate facility so she can control her flock’s reproduction. She selects the ewe-ram matches not just to ensure genetic diversity and avoid inbreeding but also to create specific types of sheep.
“I’ve worked really hard at developing and crossing the breeds I have, so I will say I have really nice sheep,” she said.
Cleveland knows which crosses will result in lambs with nice wool or meat, or which ones create calm sheep who work well for dogs.
“The (dog)-training people and the breeding people, I know what they’re looking for, and I breed for that to provide what they want,” she said. “And it also depends on how they develop, what the animal looks like at a certain age and its temperament.”
A helping hand
Laurie O’Neil befriended Cleveland when both lived in New York and later moved to Clifford Twp., where she raises her own sheep and other rescued animals. She said Cleveland helped her a lot in training her border collies and raising her sheep.
“She’s just a great person. ... I can’t say enough good things about her,” O’Neil said. “She really does a great job.”
Cleveland focuses the most on raising animals humanely. Some people might not think a couple hundred sheep like hers will make a difference, she said, but if more people raise animals humanely for consumption, “then we’d start to make a difference.”
“What’s important is to educate people and try to get to a point where people also give the animals decent lives. ... And my animals are raised incredibly humanely,” she said. “They have great lives. I care for them all the time, that’s what I do, and then they have the humanest death I can give them — quick, stress-free.”
Even when older ewes start to produce fewer lambs and other farmers might sell them for meat, Cleveland continues to care for them.
“They’ve been with me for six, seven, eight, nine, 10 years, so I mean I allow them to just live out their lives grazing and retire here,” she said. “Most sheep farmers think I’m crazy because that’s animals you’re maintaining that aren’t paying. ... (But) they did their share.”
O’Neil said the care Cleveland gives her sheep makes her proud to know her.
“She started out with one sheep, and look what she’s got now,” O’Neil said. “It’s an amazing thing. I’m just always in awe whenever I go over there. Her sheep, she cares for each one like it’s a newborn baby. They get the best care. She doesn’t lack on anything.”
Cleveland does not regret her decision to re-invent her life as a sheep farmer. She knows one day her ashes, along with those of her beloved border collies, will end up scattered on the hillside of the farm where they have spent so many years together caring for the flock.
“I love this farm,” she said. “It’s just a wonderful place to be.”