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Oregon Sheep Ranches Offer a Bit of New Zealand in the Northwest

November 04, 1990|STANTON H. PATTY | Patty, a Vancouver, Wash., free-lance writer, is the retired assistant travel editor of the Seattle Times. and

ROSEBURG, Ore. — It is a warm, late-summer afternoon, and lazy cloud shadows are drifting across the emerald hills. A border collie waits for a signal from its master, then cuts a tight circle around a flock of sheep.

The air is sweet with the scent of newly mown hay. Fields are bright with wildflowers. There is bird song from the trees.

The scene could be a sheep farm in New Zealand's pastoral South Island--the kind of family farm that takes in visitors for a few days.

Well, New Zealand has come to southern Oregon's Douglas County.

There are sheep ranches and cattle ranches and country homes with fishing streams and gardens--all offering rustic holidays for city folk.

And now the country vacation idea is spreading from Douglas County to eastern Oregon, the Portland area and into southwestern Washington.

The rural properties, 21 at last count, are part of a hospitality network called Country Host Registry.

"We're not talking dude ranches," says Evelyn Sonka, of Myrtle Creek, Ore., a founder of the registry. "We're offering a true picture of what country life is all about."

Travelers write or call Country Host Registry for a brochure that includes rates and descriptions of the properties. Reservations and payments are made through the registry office.

Sonka and Pat Anderes, operating partners of the registry, do their best to match guests' interests with host families.

The possibilities are many: On the Douglas County sheep ranches, visitors can watch lambing (usually February and March) and shearing (late March and April), help with chores or just relax.

There are rural riverside homes featuring fly fishing or bait fishing for trout, salmon or steelhead. A host couple near Roseburg can arrange tours of timberlands and a sawmill. Others accent antiques, art, music and home cooking. For the energetic traveler, there are activities ranging from bicycle day trips to hiking and horseback riding.

There is a llama ranch with guest facilities on two dozen acres of rolling pastures and woods in Oregon's Yamhill County.

There are classy old homesteads close to Portland and Grants Pass for loafing. There is a quiet country cottage by a fishing hole on the Clackamas River, only 16 miles east of downtown Portland. A bed and breakfast inn near Eugene offers rides in a vintage shay pulled by a grand champion donkey by the name of Black Bart.

All of the hosts guarantee hearty farm breakfasts as part of the packages. Several serve lunch and/or dinner, at extra cost.

Most of the country homes welcome children. A few even permit pets.

The country-culture concept is the result of a trip by Douglas County farmers to New Zealand in 1985.

Don Wilkinson, a former high-school teacher and agricultural extension agent, led the tour that included stays at four Kiwi sheep ranches. The group included Evelyn Sonka and her husband, Louis, and Virginia Wilkinson, Don's wife.

"Flying home, Virginia and I were talking about our wonderful experiences during the farm-stays in New Zealand," Evelyn Sonka recalled. "We said, 'Gosh, we could do the same thing here in Douglas County.' "

There were only four members in 1986, the first season.o

The Sonkas began taking in travelers at their Sonka's Sheep Station, a 360-acre working ranch on the South Umpqua River, about 20 miles south of Roseburg. The Wilkinsons opened the doors at Shepherd's Meadow Inn, their 900-acre sheep ranch in Scotts Valley, near Yoncalla, about midway between Eugene and Roseburg. And soon a few nearby farmers began adding their homes to the list.

Imagine a place where the air is so fresh that it gets your attention. Swift border collies gather snowy flocks of sheep. There are lambs for children (and grown-ups) to cuddle.

You have just arrived at Shepherd's Meadow Inn, one of Douglas County's showplace sheep ranches.

Put away the neckties and high heels. Slip into something comfortable. And make the footwear so casual that you won't mind stepping on things that sheep leave behind when you go stepping out on the ranch. Meet Tess, a playful border collie that would rather fetch Frisbees than chase sheep. "She runs the place," says Virginia Wilkinson.

Then walk into the Wilkinson's "sick bay" paddock, home to the ill and injured of the ranch's sheep population. There are lambs rejected by their milkless mothers and head-banging rams injured in combat.

Go ahead. Pick up a lamb and have a hug. Grab a pail of food pellets and help feed the patients.

Go for a drive with Don Wilkinson and learn something about sheep. They're productive animals, providing both wool and meat. But they need a great deal of care. The ranch routine is busy. No time, Wilkinson says wistfully, for winter vacations in Hawaii.

Douglas County alone has about 300 sheep ranches, large and small, with a total of more than 100,000 ewes.

The Wilkinsons have the largest flock of New Zealand Coopworth sheep in the United States--about 1,100 ewes and 1,500 lambs. Coopworths are noted for lustrous, high-quality wool.

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