Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Once upon a time we had sheep

1997
I am a spinner.   I make yarn from scratch on a spinning wheel.  When we moved out here we realized that we could raise our own fleeces.   It was a delicious, wonderful, romantic idea.   Forty acres in the country with our own flock of sheep.  How Cool Is That?

Deciding what kind of sheep to buy took a long time.  My sister-in-law had sent me a gift of several different types of fibers to spin.  One of them was Romney.  I loved it.  Romneys have long soft fleeces and they come in white and natural colors (e.g. black and gray).   They are also well behaved and good meat sheep, too if we were so inclined. 

We checked out the local sheep breeders associations but found their stock out of our price range.  So we put out  feelers through a local spinners and weavers guild and we finally heard about an annual Fleece Fair in Greencastle.  We decided to attend. [This has turned into the wonderful annual Fiber Event at Greencastle]

The Fleece Fair was one of the most fun things I have ever done in my life.  There were not many spinners yet in southern Indiana, although I have been amazed at how quickly the numbers increased.   It was fun to go to a whole fair celebrating something that I enjoy doing so much.  There were fleeces of every kind, from camel to llama to goat to every breed of mix of sheep I’ve ever seen.  There were fleeces and rovings and wheels and pickers…and sheep!  We bought our first sheep there at the fair.  They were a ewe and her twins, all in excellent shape.  They were a mixed breed, Montadale and Border Leicester, which is why we could afford them.  We also found a woman who raises Romneys and though she didn’t have any ewes at the fair, she lived close by and had some for sale at the farm.  We decided to get two. 

We took the first three sheep home that day through the worst hailstorm I’ve ever been in in my life.  There were two inches of hail on the road.  After a long and stressful drive, we got everyone home safely and it only took a couple of days for them to get used to us.  We named the ewe Buttercup and the lambs we named Polyester (a ewe) and Rayon (a ram).  We began to get to know the mannerisms of sheep. 

As children in America we are taught that sheep say ‘baa’.  Ask the next child you see and s/he will confidently say that all sheep say ‘baa’.  There’s even a song:  Baa, baa black sheep, have you any wool?…etc…etc.  We have been lied to.  It is not true.  Sheep don’t baa, they say, ‘maa’.  At first I thought our sheep had strange accents.  They weren’t American sheep after all, they were Scottish.  Maybe only truly American sheep say, ‘baa’.

Nope, After careful research, I can say that the baa theory must have been propaganda put out either by goats or the nursery rhyme people.  At any rate, sheep say maa.  And not just any maa.  Sheep have a mournful maa.  In many ways, it is rather like the involuntary moan that you might make upon reading really bad news from the IRS.  Now, imagine a whole room full of people getting the same bad news.  That’s what our sheep sounded like.  Except for Ray, who sounded like a horse whinnying.  We don’t know why.

Buttercup was a good mother and very protective.  She was also an adept escape artist.  This we discovered one day when I looked out of my window to see the sheep in the garden eating the forsythia bush.  My neighbor was close behind.    They had found a hole in the fence and decided to go east.  Kevin had been drinking his morning coffee when his cat got all weirded out about something and he noticed that his cows were all gathered together looking at something on the road.  When he went out to investigate, he found the cows all by the fence staring at the sheep, who were in the middle of the road staring at the cows.   Apparently Kevin’s cows had never seen sheep before and our sheep had never seen cows before.  Thank heaven.  We might never have got them back if they had kept walking to the blacktop.  Kevin walked them back to our place (almost a mile) and helped me get them back in the barn where they stayed until we could patch the fence. 

The next day Eric and I found the hole, a place that had been cleanly cut and laid down by someone raiding our field of something.  We patched it and a couple of other places and let the sheep back out.  Buttercup headed straight for where the hole had been .  We hoped that she was satisfied that she couldn’t get out and that she would stop trying.  Fat chance.

Three weeks after we got Buttercup and her lambs, we got our first real Romney from Barbara, the woman we had met at the fleece fair.  Her name was Rachel, the sheep’s I mean, and she had not yet weaned her lambs.  This we discovered when we got her home and noticed that her milk bag was much larger and when she started saying, ‘moo’ instead of ‘maa’.  She spent the next two days calling for her lambs.  I began to wonder if Romneys were part cow.  That poor sheep went everywhere looking for her lambs and wherever she led, the other sheep went, too.  In two days, they had found another escape route and by divine intervention another neighbor happened to see them coming back toward the barn on the road.  it was easy to get them in but now we had to find and patch the new hole.  Our neighbor said not to worry too much; he had had a goat once and it was always getting out; if you have animals, they’re going to get out.

Our next sheep, Eve, also a Romney, proved him right.  We came home from church the day after we got her and all of the ewes were missing.  Poor Ray was alone in the barn, frantic that he couldn’t find his mama.  Ray had called himself hoarse trying to locate the other sheep.  Eric and I called ourselves hoarse looking for them.  My parents and sisters came over and called themselves hoarse.  We set out in search parties to look for them.  We finally found the place where Eve, searching for the lambs she had left behind, had gone over the property line fence.  We alerted the neighbor, Robert, and he finally found them grazing peacefully in his lower pasture. Damn sheep.

Eventually, the sheep established a pecking order of sorts and Buttercup reigned Queen.  Wherever she led, the other sheep followed. She was a very friendly sheep, we ascertained, as she systematically escaped and went to visit all, yes all, of our neighbors.  We would come home to an empty pasture and start calling the neighbors and eventually find that the sheep had gone to introduce themselves to yet another nearby farm.  It wasn’t that the sheep went calling without us that bothered me so much, it was that they just wouldn’t leave a not telling us which neighbor they were going to visit today.

It was embarrassing that we couldn’t contain our beasts and I felt like we were inflicting our flock on the entire northeast corner of the county, whose inhabitants patiently drove the sheep back to our house.  Once I found them myself in Kevin’s yard as I was heading to school to pick up my sister. I stopped long enough to tell Kevin where I was going and that I’d be back in twenty minutes with Bonnie to help get the sheep back home.  No problem.  Then the damn sheep decided to feast only the road, and Kevin was afraid that they’d get hit, so he saddled up his tractor and drove them home for me.  We got home just as he was letting them in the pasture.  Once, the sheep went to visit our neighbors to the north.  We had no idea where they had gone and the neighbors hadn’t been able to get a hold of us by phone because we were out looking for the sheep.  We finally made our way up to their house on our last driving trip around the area and there we found our sheep with Dan and Jean, who explained that the sheep had come to visit and had been very courteous visitors, too.  By then, it was dark.  I drove the car behind, and Eric drove the sheep ahead.  When we got to our road, we met a truck, whose driver, upon seeing our flock in the middle of the road, immediately figured out what was going on and graciously let us go on ahead.  The sheep galloped the rest of the way to the barn with Eric in hot pursuit, me following in the car with the hazard lights flashing and Mr. Truck Guy behind.  I swear I heard him laughing.   Once I came home and found our little flock waiting patiently on the road by the gate to the pasture to be let back in. I found out later that the school bus met them on the road and kindly drove them back home. 

Our neighbors were great.  They were the epitome of graciousness. They never got enraged and had quite a good laugh over the whole situation.  Jean even said she’d never had so much fun as when she was guessing what sort of vehicle would go by her lane driving our sheep home next.  

The big all-consuming question was how the sheep were escaping in the first place.  We finally found a couple more weak spots in the fencing and then we discovered that when the creek was low, the sheep just went in it and walked the creek bed to where they could get out to the road.  It took some ingenious engineering to design a fence over the creek that would discourage the sheep and still last through the flash flooding common in this area. 

There were times when out of desperation and humiliation, we just locked the sheep in the barn.   That didn't work either.   I happened to be looking at the barn one day in time to see one of the smaller sheep jump out one of the barn windows - five feet up the wall.   I said bad words, then we tried electric fencing.   That worked for about 3 weeks after shearing, but as soon as the fleeces got so long, all that wool acted as insulation. 


Those blasted sheep, especially Buttercup, were like the velociraptors in Jurassic Park.  They kept testing the fences, looking for weak spots.   They had all day to do it and we didn't have the time to follow them around mending fences.    As the sheep found weak spots so did the predators.   The spring we lost 1/2 the flock in a day to wild dogs is the spring we gave up.  Whenever you're tempted to raise livestock remember this: if you're going to have animals, you have to have really good fences first.  


We don't have sheep anymore.   It's nice not to have to chase them all over the county or spend six hours a day making sure they haven't found a weak spot in the fences.  Sometimes I miss the lambs, but whenever I need a sheep fix, I go to festivals like The Fiber Event, Hoosier Hills Fiberarts Festival and the Michigan Fiber Festival to find fiber to spin and lambs to watch.

1 comment:

  1. When Brandon and I met he was going to school, but on the weekends he would travel to his mom's home which at that time happened to be a farm house. They had cows, sheep, a lama, crops, and the three best farm cats anyone could ever ask for. I would have to say Brandon hated the sheep the most. After being around them for a little while, I totally agree with everything you said... especially the part about having really good fences. The lama helped out a quite a bit, but it was still pretty bad. I remember you having sheep when we lived there. I had no idea that were such a pain and I don't blame you for getting rid of them! I am, however, pleased you still find a way to enjoy them every so often at someone else's expense :)

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