Hog Island Part 1: A Feral Breed

In this three-part post, I am going to focus on Hog Island sheep and fleece. I first learned about this breed from Sarah on Fiber Trek and I first met this breed when I visited the Fingerlakes Woolen Mill this past spring. This once feral sheep is a critical, conservation breed and there are very few flocks in the US.

sheep2

Image Source: http://hogislandsheep.org/images/sheep2.gif

The Livestock Conservancy has this to say about Hog Island sheep:

“In the 1930’s a string of hurricanes and “nor’easter” storms washed across the island and discouraged the residents from continuing life in their island community. By 1945 all of the residents of Hog Island had migrated to the Eastern Shore of Virginia and had taken most of their livestock with them. Many sheep remained on Hog Island and continued to thrive as they had for centuries. The annual shearing and notching in the spring was generally the only contact between the owners and their sheep. The sheep roamed freely upon their “floating” pasture consuming the marsh grass at will and imbibing fresh water from small pools that had been dug ankle deep into the sandy soil.

The last sheep were removed from Hog Island in 1974 when the Nature Conservancy purchased the island. Four years later, Virginia Coast Reserve agents found, to their surprise, a thriving flock of sheep on the island. This is a testament to the extreme hardiness of these animals. The Nature Conservancy removed the last of the sheep in late August 1978, to return them to full domestication. Ten rams and twenty ewes traveled to Virginia Tech for research into the breed’s parasite resistance. The year-long study indicated that isolation, not resistance, had kept the sheep virtually parasite free on the island.”

What I can tell you is that these sheep are very adorable, and hearty. Suzanne and Jay (of the Fingerlakes Woolen Mill) told us that their births are pretty uneventful, they winter well, and they require little intervention from their human caretakers. What I saw was a very happy and independent flock of sheep! This flock is sheared once a year and their fleeces can be variable in length and crimp (I’ll come back to this in Part 3). You can read more about the Fingerlakes’ flock on the Mill webpage.

I like the idea of feral sheep–and sheep that can live alone on an island certainly fit the bill for hearty animals! I am also very curious about the breed qualities of this sheep and the ways that they have changed and morphed from the original British stock. So, a fleece breed study was in order . . .

Tomorrow: Experiments in Mill Roving!

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