Lessons in Sheep Farming

When I was 13, I announced that I wanted to go into sheep farming and become a large animal vet. This admittedly, was a bit of a career dream non sequitur from wanting to be a saxophonist at age 12. Maybe it was a return to my pastoral Vermont agrarian routes. Or maybe, I just thought they were cute.

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So I thrust myself in the world of Sheep 4-H, learning the ways of ovine husbandry through visits to a local sheep farm. Besides that, I attended 4-H events such as the annual Sheep Quiz Bowl, where your knowledge on the properties of wool and the sheep digestive system are tested. And then was Sheep Camp, where we tie dyed t-shirts with pictures of happy smiling ewes roasting marshmallows over an open fire.

After a hot summer of building a sheep corral in one of our sheds, the first two sheep (which would eventually grow to five) arrived.They were Tunis sheep, an ancient North African breed descended from the Fat Tailed sheep of the bible. With cinnamon colored face and legs, they’re a popular breed in New England but rare in other parts of the US.

There are challenges to loving sheep. They won’t come to you when you call them by their name. Only through the temptation of a clinking can of grain, will they come. And as soft as they are, you can’t cuddle with them on the couch like you can with a dog. Though, as sheep have no issue with lying in their own excrement, it’s probably for the best that they’re not invited on the futon.

Sheep are the classic example of a herd animal, and are stereotyped as all acting alike. However, spend time with sheep and you’ll find that they have their own personalities. There was Wyoming, who was sweet and shy, and seemingly a little slow witted even by sheep standards.Then there was the spirited and lively Kansas,and her twin brother, the jumpy and stubborn Texas. And then their mothers, Lily, a dominant and aggressive ewe, and  finally, the mild mannered Sophie.

Sheep are smarter than they receive credit for.They can remember up to fifty different sheep faces (can you?) and ten human faces for two years.Nonetheless, their intelligence still leaves room for desire. Most certainly the shining example of this was when Wyoming and Kansas escaped their pens and ran away into the woods the night before deer season began. After an unsuccessful search party, we thought their demise was certainly coming either from the hungry coyotes that howl at night or over eager hunters seeing their brown legs and black hooves flash by. However, life threatening choices aside, they safely wandered out of the woods and onto our lawns unscathed (albeit a little skittish) around 7am the next day.

It’s been six years since the last of our little sheep herd was sold at the farm auction in North Hampton. And like most life ambitions stated by 13 year olds, becoming a sheep farming vet never came to fruition. Regardless, my memories of raising sheep are favorable. And besides, it’s impossible to regret having cute sheep to pet everyday.


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