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.
As Indiana makes its way through another week of excessive heat warnings, my sheep are beginning to wilt. We didn’t have a drop of rain at the farm for most of May and June and the pastures have been dry and unproductive.
The sheep were not happy with the situation, but tried their best to remain positive by learning new tricks—unlatching gates, knocking all five hanging grain feeders off the fence twice a day, etc. Clever Jane (see final picture) was involved in all this tomfoolery, no doubt.
Now that we have had some rain, heat in the upper nineties has promised a very humid week. This morning, I moved the sheep to a new pasture with a large, shady tree near the woods. As the sun sets in the afternoon, deep shade from the woods moves towards the pasture to offer our wooly friends some respite.
But, they are still not pleased, as you can see.
I often name my sheep after characters in the books I am reading at the time they are born—Gudrun and Gerald from Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence, Jude and Sue from Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy, and Marcel is named after Monsieur Proust, of course! As a huge Thomas Hardy fan, I also have a Tess.
I recently had an article published in the new issue of Jane Austen Knits (Interweave Press Summer 2012) about Leicester sheep during the Regency period, and I included a picture of Tess!
Tess is one of my most beautiful ewes with strong Border Leicester characteristics. She has a pronounced “roman nose”, or bow-shaped head, typical of both Border and Bluefaced Leicesters. She has a curly, lustrous fleece and a sturdy stance.
Unlike Hardy’s heroine, my Tess is convinced she is not only the master of her own fate, but everyone else’s as well. She guards the other sheep in her group and does her best to lead them to the greenest pastures.
Jane Austen wrote a letter to her sister, Cassandra, in 1798 that included news of their father’s flock. “. . . I am likewise to tell you that one of his Leicestershire sheep, sold to the butcher last week, weighed 27 lb. and 1/4 per quarter.” Sheep carrying the Leicester name in Jane’s day were undergoing changes that would influence the as yet uncharted field of genetics for generations. A Leicestershire farmer named Robert Bakewell (1725-1795) began improving the sheep on his farm in the English Midlands. Bakewell developed a new breed, which he called the Dishley Leicester or New Leicester, through his own system of selection, now called Line Breeding. Bakewell would eventually become one of the most noteworthy figures in the history of animal husbandry.
I just love learning about the long and circuitous history of the sheep that graze outside my windows as I write. I can imagine Jane Austen looking up occasionally from her work to see her father’s flock grazing on the grounds of their home at Steventon Rectory.
I designed Mrs. Smith’s Tea Cozy to accompany my article, “Leicester Sheep in Jane Austen’s England.” Using my own handspun Border Leicester for the pattern was very exciting! Both shades are natural color. The white wool is actually from Tess, because it was just more fun that way! I based the pattern on Regency era pinballs, or pincushions. You can see some great examples in the Victoria and Albert Museum collection here and here.
I didn’t realize that Marcel would become quite so popular when I posted this picture of him as a lamb! One of my favourite things about keeping sheep is watching them grow and change. Each sheep has its own distinctive features- like an arched nose, a wide forehead, or perky ears, that are often passed from one generation to the next. I started my flock of Border Leicesters about four years ago with five pregnant ewes. When I look over my flock of twenty-five now, I still see the familiar characteristics of the original matriarchs repeated over and over again.
Nora was one of my first lambs. She was a very shy little lamb. In this picture she is about a week old.
Here she is a few weeks ago, now five years old. She is still very shy, but did grow into her ears!