Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sue Weaver: Feeling Sheepish

Baby Maxx with his twin sister, Hope

I’ve admired sheep all my life but from afar, through interacting with friends’ flocks and dreaming of the day I’d buy my first sheep. That happened 6 years ago with the purchase of an aged, bred ewe named Baasha and a weanling ram. Today we share our farm with 23 tiny sheep, Baasha’s descendants every one.

Late autumn is an exciting time of year on our little farm, as we pair up sheep for next spring’s lambs. This year we’re breeding only three of our best ewes. Their boyfriend is Wolf Moon Fin Bheara, a.k.a. Maxx, a unique double-registered Miniature and Classic Cheviot born on our little farm in 2008; unique because he’s the first paint (spotted) Cheviot registered with both registries, though we’re crossing our fingers that he’ll sire more of the same.

Maxx's handsome profile

It’s also exciting to be one of the first three breeders of Classic Cheviots and a cofounder of the American Classic Cheviot Sheep Association. Most of our group’s foundation sheep are also registered with the American Miniature Cheviot Sheep Breeders Association, a fine organization to be sure, though not as interested in producing old-time Cheviot type and high-quality handspinners’ fleece — those are the aims of our group.

Our little sheep are not true miniatures. They are original British-type Border Cheviots as that breed existed before it was selectively bred for longer legs and larger cuts of meat. Records dating to 1372 refer to a “small, but very hardy” race of sheep grazing the bleak Cheviot Hills between Scotland and England. These sheep, ancestors of all five modern breeds of Cheviot sheep, lived on the windswept hills summer and winter, seeking their own food to survive.

A Border Cheviot ram circa 1860

In 1791 Sir John Sinclair, president of the British Board of Agriculture, said of Cheviot wool: "The highlands of Scotland if covered with the coarse wool breeds of sheep the wool might be worth 300,000 pounds of sterling, whereas, if the same ground were covered by the Cheviot, the true mountain breed, would be worth at least 900,000 pounds sterling.” The main use of Cheviot fleece was for weaving Cheviot tweed fabric, long touted as the best of Britain’s tweeds. Sadly, the Highland clearances occurred when landowners ousted crofters and their stock to make way for flocks of Cheviot sheep.

The first Cheviots came to America in the 1840s, when Thomas Laidler, a shepherd on the Cheviot Hills, sent each of his four children living in New Lisbon, New York, three Cheviot sheep. By the early days of the twentieth century, Cheviots were a favorite breed in North America, Australia, and New Zealand and throughout the British Isles.

Cheviot lambs are adorable beyond words.

Like their ancestors, Miniature and Classic Cheviots are broad, short-legged, sturdy sheep that are longer than they are tall (Miniature Cheviots may be up to 23 inches tall, measured at their newly shorn shoulders; Classics up to 27 inches tall may be registered, though the standard calls for sheep in the 18-inch to 24-inch height range). Adults weigh in the neighborhood of 100 pounds. Whites, blacks, and dilute black colors occur, and dark sheep frequently have white-splashed faces. They have perky, horselike ears; huge, dark eyes; and handsomely convex facial profiles. Their faces and legs are covered with hair instead of wool, and their soft, spongy, low-grease fleeces don’t pick up a lot of debris. Staple length (the length of fleece grown between annual shearings) runs from 3 to 5 inches and tests 25 to 32 microns in diameter.

Best, they are hardy, easy-care sheep brimming with joie de vivre. Like other mountain breeds, they are not close-flocking; this and their active natures make them a favorite wool breed for herding-dog training.

Wolf Moon Wren will lamb in April.

Now begins the long, exciting wait until the first lambs are due to arrive — on April Fool’s Day, no less. Their mom will be my oldest producing ewe, Rebaa (Coats’ Farm Rosy Lolita), who retires with the birth of this year’s lambs. For the past three lambing seasons, wise old Rebaa, who consistently gives birth to twins or triplets, has selected a lamb from her brood for me to bottle-raise. She nurses her lambs for an hour or so until making her selection, then starts nudging the chosen lamb away. If I don’t take the hint, she gets rougher until I do. Does she reject this lamb? I don’t think so. I think she wants me to share her joy at raising lambs. And I do. I can hardly wait till lambing time this coming year!

Sue Weaver sold her first freelance article in 1969. Since then her work has appeared in major horse periodicals, including The Western Horseman, Horse Illustrated, Chronicle of the Horse, Flying Changes, Horseman’s Market, Arabian Horse Times, The Appaloosa News, The Quarter Horse Journal, Horse’N Around, and The Brayer. She has written, among other books, Storey’s Guide to Raising Miniature Livestock, The Donkey Companion, and Get Your Goat! to be published in 2010. Sue is based in the southern Ozark Mountains in Arkansas.

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