August 24, 2014

Welcome a little cattle dog to the Lowcountry herd

We've got a new puppy, and one we desperately need.

She is a cattle dog.

In fact, little Shasta is an Australian cattle dog. She's a "blue heeler," a smart and energetic breed known for nipping the heels of the larger animals it controls.

Right now, that would be us.

But you never know when a herd of disorganized cows will come roaming through Hilton Head Island. It's always good to be prepared.

Most Lowcountry residents today have more useful dogs that can still do important things, like retrieve tennis balls. We have one that is a miniature cowboy, busy lassoing our other dog, Brae. She's a herder-mix of a Lowcountry mutt rescued by Maranatha Farms in Ridgeland. These two have turned our den into a rodeo ring.

In their minds, they are steer wrestling in the dust beneath dimly lit grandstands. To us, they're fighting over a chew toy.

Little Shasta has piercing eyes, and ears as big as a mule's. Somebody said she looks like a mix between a raccoon and a chinchilla. We think she is beautiful.

She is named for the county she comes from in northern California, by the banks of Shasta Lake and near the beautiful snowcaps of the volcanic Mount Shasta.

Not that long ago, she would have had plenty of work to do here in the Lowcountry. Cattle roamed free, fenced in by the ocean and rivers.

Alan Ulmer Jr. of Bluffton once told me that when cattle wandered the marshes of Beaufort County, we had oysters as big as your forearm.

When Hilton Head was a Gullah island, the late Thomas "Cosby" Holmes could round up and sort out everyone's cows.

Belfair Plantation in Bluffton, with its two golf courses and beautiful homes, was once a ranch of Polled Herefords.

Brays Island in Sheldon had black Angus so prized that the county's first scientific crack at controlling mosquitoes was undertaken for the herd.

Cypress Woods in Ridgeland had so many Hereford, Angus, Shorthorn, Santa Gertrudis, Charbray and Brahman cattle that the herd was served by 58 bulls.

When G.H. Bostwick owned Tomotley Plantation in Sheldon and Hog Bluff Plantation near Bluffton, now called Moss Creek, he held the largest herd of Devon cattle in the world.

One of Beaufort County's grandest rites of spring was the cattle sale at Tomotley in late April. Invitations were highly coveted.

"Rings are set up under tents," Edith Inglesby tells us in her 1968 book, "A Corner of Carolina."

"Outside in pens the cattle, sleek and handsome, their red coats glowing in the sun, are led into the ring. In the bright April air everything is colorful and gay; the scene not unlike the Bath and West Agricultural Show in England.

"All night the barbecue fires have been burning and the delicious Devon beef cooking; one may have it rare, medium or well-done. And a succulent feast it is. This being the South, there also is obtainable the native potation ... bourbon and branch water. However foreigners may have Scotch and soda if they must."

But poor little Shasta, like the rest of us, will never get to feast her eyes on such a gathering. She might not even get the odd chance to rustle cattle that we've seen in my era.

Cows from the Ulmer brothers' farm in Bluffton were known to get out and wander onto a fairway at the Old South Golf Links. Tourists sent pictures to the newspaper, and we investigated.

"The way to do it is just play through," Alan Ulmer drawled. "The cows don't mind."

The last cow on Hilton Head is believed to be Miss Earline. She was sort of a pet and the last vestige of a way of life for the late Arthur Frazier of Jonesville Road.

Miss Earline was pulled out of retirement to play an ignominious role beneath the bright lights of a Friday night football game. Miss Earline was the star of a fundraiser by the booster club called "Cow Patty Bingo."

Shasta didn't know any of this before she boarded the plane for the Lowcountry. But it was a one-way ticket. And we've promised her there are plenty of deer that need her attention.

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