This is about six-weeks ago, but I thought you might enjoy it as much as I do!
Last night, lambing season officially came to a close with a happy ending–an easy birth (albeit late!) and a single buck lamb.
I typically begin lambing in March so that the lambs are born when it’s time to begin grazing our spring pastures. I aimed for a later window this year so the lambs wouldn’t begin to arrive until I returned from teaching at Interweave Yarn Fest in Loveland, Colorado. It’s been an unusual lamb crop with primarily single buck (male) lambs, whereas in the past, twin ewe lambs has been the typical trend. One never knows!
While the lambs are very young, I keep the group in a pasture just outside the barn. This gives them a chance to learn about flocking. The lambs will often play together, wandering farther from their mothers as they get older. A small, safe paddock allows them to practice bouncing with their buddies, realize that their mother is no longer in sight, and learn how to find her again without panicking.
The first lamb born this year was a buck who came into the world ready to make it his very own. I named him Per Hansa after the main character in Ole Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth (1924)–a fascinating and important book about a fictional group of Norwegian immigrants who settle in the Dakota Territory. When Per Hansa looks out across the prairie, he sees endless opportunity. He also has a good friend, Hans Olsa, who is a very large, kind man. So, my second lamb, who is large and lumbering makes a very good Hans. (The three images at the top are of Hans exploring the wide world for the first time.)
Now that all of the lambs are born, they will be heading out to the larger pastures. I’ll share a video soon!
Those of you who have spent time with me in the last seven years have probably heard me mention my very special sheep, Joan. I know each of my thirty sheep on sight, but not all have names or interact with me on a daily basis. But greeting Joan with a pat or a hug each day has been my happy practice for years now.
Many flocks have what is often called a leader ewe that acts as a bit of an ambassador between shepherd and flock. (In fact, Icelandic leader sheep are kept as a separate genetic line within the breed.) My dear Joan is a born leader; she’s quick-witted, observant, and quite bossy. She came into the world that way and I’ve never met another sheep like her. She also loves cats.
Some people might take issue with the idea of a “smart sheep.” From my experiences in working with flocks of different breeds, I am amazed at how much the behavior and social patterns of sheep can vary. Joan, self-appointed flock princess, oversees all the activities in her realm in true Border Leicester fashion. I’ll tell you about one of her more interesting and helpful activities…
Joan has a shrill alert call that she only makes when something is amiss. If a sheep jumps a fence or is ill, she starts pacing and calling to us. During lambing time, I know if there is a ewe in labor before I get to the barn because Joan has rung the alarm. I’m lucky to have her help!
So, when I found out that a picture I took of Joan on pasture would be on the cover of the winter Spin-Off, I was pretty excited.
I wrote an article for this issue about one of my favorite topics: “Leicester Sheep: A short history of a modern longwool.” These wonderful breeds (Leicester Longwool, Border Leicester, and Bluefaced Leicester) have changed and evolved over time as they’ve adapted to new environments and purposes. So, I wanted to pair each breed description with a profile of a specific flock. Our choices as shepherds can dramatically impact how a flock looks, their health and habits in just a few generations.
The article includes profiles of three amazing flocks, which I’ll include below. I also asked Bluefaced Leicester breeder Robina Koenig about her flock and what she looks for in these special sheep.
Tumble Creek Farm
Robina has been raising Bluefaced Leicesters in central Oregon since 1996. The Tumble Creek flock was developed using US genetics as well as UK bloodlines via artificial insemination. When it comes to fleece, the flock is selected for “outstanding softness and handle, staple length and luster.” Robina says, “Blues have maternal traits, carcass quality, and desirable fiber to talk about for pages. These are the animals that do well in the show ring and whose traits should be passed to future generations. For my flock, I like both white and natural colored for fleece sales, rovings and yarns. But an important part of the BFL flock is their gentle personality, calmness, and curiosity. Several times I have walked through my flock as among friends for inspiration.”
Where to find Leicester fibers:
Windy Ridge Flock – Leicester Longwool breeders in Leicestershire, England
The Ross Farm – Leicester Longwool breeders in Pennsylvania, USA.
Marsh Creek Crossing – Border Leicester breeders in Minnesota, USA.
Little Smokey Bluefaced Leicesters – BFL and BFL crosses in Saskatchuan, Canada.
Border Leicester sheep are wonderful grazers, becoming ever more proficient as they mature. At first glance, they may appear to nibble the forages indiscriminately, but they are actually feeling the plants with their lips and selecting what they want to eat. This isn’t as obvious when they are out on lush pasture where everything is tasty, but is easier to see when they are on rougher forage. I love to watch (and hear) them carefully select and munch at speed. Though it’s hard to hear in this video, there is a lip-smacking noise that the sheep often make as part of the selecting process. Listening to thirty sheep making this little pop, pop, pop noise all at once is impressive!
In this video is little Vina at three months, followed by Joan, a professional grazer if I ever saw one! They are in the back corner of a pasture that is over-mature (as happens when haymaking is late due to a wet spring/summer), so there are plenty of weeds, which the farmer regrets, but the sheep eat them with relish. Those of you in my local knitting and spinning classes will have probably heard tales of Joan’s noble ferocity and gallant nature. She’s also a bit piggy. Vina is her granddaughter.
I am using portable fencing to create small paddocks within the pasture. You can see the movable posts on the far side of the paddock. Each day, the sheep get a new strip of grass, because as we all know, grass is greener on the other side. This keeps them moving forward and reduces the area that they regraze.
Spring has sprung—and the lambs are bouncing! I have spent much of the last few weeks in the barn. I’ll still spend (too) much of my time with the sheep in the next month—not as a vigilant midwife, but for the sheer pleasure of watching the lambs grow and learn and play.
There always seems to be one or two lambs in every bunch that loves to strike a charming pose for the camera—Retty is the girl of the year. You can see her here on the left. Marian isn’t more than a few minutes older, but likes to fuss over her smallish sister.
Here in Indiana, we should already be seeing glimpses of spring by now, but alas… This winter has been especially cold and snowy, so we are all anxiously awaiting warmer weather. I typically schedule my ewes to lamb when the grass will be ready to graze, so they should start to arrive in mid-April. While we await their arrival, I posted a video of the lambs from last year. Nothing brings warmth and cheer quite like bouncing, joyful lambs—enjoy!
With the first hints of turning leaves in the air, I start to relax. The smell of autumn is a welcome reminder that the long, busy days of summer and early fall on the farm do draw to a close. The farm has been a flurry of activity this year. We built a new barn for the sheep this spring and have been renovating fields and pastures. The lambs born this spring, which you can see here, are growing and are also enjoying the cool evenings.
Due to the pasture renovations, most of the sheep are in the new barn this fall. It is big and airy and sunny, but they would much rather be out of doors. Luckily for them, we have a bumper-crop of Giant Ragweed this year. In the evenings, I drag a dozen of the six-foot weeds into the barn, to the great pleasure of the captive flock.
Gerald and his friends are out in a separate pasture and are enjoying the cool evenings.
We are trying a variety of new forages in this pasture renovation. My dad is a Research Fellow at IUPUI as well as a farmer, so these on-farm trials are the result of much study and thought—as you might expect! This field was the first cleared on the farm toward the end of the 1800s—a bit late for this area in Indiana. Sitting adjacent to the house and barns, it has always been used for the farm’s horses. I found a horseshoe that was turned up by the tillage. My grandfather said, based on the shape, that it probably belonged to a horse my great-grandfather Urbane called New Deal. This seeder was one of Urbane’s purchases and the owner’s manual, which is still tucked inside a toolbox attached to the hitch, has detailed instructions on how to connect it to a team of horses. It was very sophisticated when new, and still does a great job. It makes a distinctive, antique sound when in use, mostly due to chains that drag on the soil surface to partially cover the seeds.
The last few weeks of my life have been full of bouncing, baby lambs. Here are a few of my favourite pictures so far:
Shearing day. The flock started this week as fluffy, wool-laden beasts and are now sleek, shockingly white, and shiny. The sheep actually quite like shearing day. Our wonderful shearer, Matt Kennedy, sits them on their rumps and quickly shears them. Matt then lets them roll off the shearing mat, leaving a huge pile of wool behind. My sheep usually walk themselves back to the holding pen to join the rest of the flock. What happens next is of great delight to any shepherd: they ruminate. Sheep who feel safe and contented ruminate (a more delicate term for chewing their cud). It is a blissful and meditative state. So, they spend the rest of the afternoon with sleepy, half-seeing eyes, chewing their cud and satisfying itches formerly inaccessible through their full fleece. And they sigh. A lot.