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Sheep never forget. Shepherds might, now and then, but their flocks will remind them every time. And that's just one of their tricks.
“Your sheep are eating my garden,” my friend Maggie says. How can that be? I think. My sheep live on the Rexrode place, six miles from that garden.
“I’ll go find them,” I politely reply. For years I’ve hauled part of the flock to summer pasture on the Rexrode homestead in the Laurel Fork area of Highland County, Va. It’s well worth the 12-mile round-trip drive, mostly on a narrow dirt road over Lantz Mountain to the top of Middle Mountain – beautiful. No one lives there except Maggie, the garden lady, six miles past the old farm and Skip-who-built-a-boat-in-the-kitchen-and-can’t-get-it-out. He lives in the valley three miles before it. About 30 families lived in the Middle Mountain community one time. Alas, it’s cold there. Tomatoes won’t ripen and the electric company never ran a line out there. Everyone left. A lot of it is in the George Washington National Forest now.
Anyway, when I get to the Rexrode place, the sheep greet me, bleating warm welcomes inside the fence anxiously waiting a treat of sweet grain. “Hey girls, how ya doing,” I say. They answer in soft maaaa-aahs. Nope, not my sheep eating her garden, I think. But then the next nearest sheep are 15 miles away. Two days later, back home, she accosts me at the post office and in a controlled voice says, “They’re still getting in my garden and it’s about ruined.”
“Oh no,” I wince. “I’ll go check again. They were all where they belong yesterday.”
I drive the 12 miles and check again. All there. Smiling. Looking for a treat.
The very next day I see Maggie in Blue Grass. She’s really aggravated. Sheep in the garden again. So it’s another trip over the mountain for me. This time, Arval Rexrode comes out of the house, laughing. The sheep are all there, laughing too, and looking for something sweet.
“I heard your old truck rumbling down the road and looked out the window,” says Arval, clutching his sides between chuckles. “Then here come your ol’ sheep thundering up the road. They cut over the bank and duck through a hole in the fence down in the corner there. Weren’t a sheep in sight when I came out this morning.”
People say sheep are dumb. Sheep aren’t dumb, they just have a different sense of priorities. True, they’re not creative thinkers, but they have perfect memories and a sense of logic that makes a lot of sense – if you’re a sheep.
William Lederer gave them a bum rap when he wrote “A Nation of Sheep.” I mean, if you had four legs ending in hoofs, not claws, and only eight teeth in the front of your mouth, all of them on your bottom jaw, what would you do when Mrs. Coyote comes looking for dinner? Quick! Get in the center of the flock. Put as many other sheep between yourself and the predator as possible. Then run in circles and confuse her.
If you put a flock in a pen and try to catch one sheep, it’s the same story. Try to grab whoever is running past and you can’t. Like any other predator, you must pick out one and stick with it. The easiest one to get is the independent thinker running in the opposite direction outside the crowd.
That’s why a bear ate my Maybelle. This ewe thought she was a pony. She lived with one for five years before her previous owner decided she’d be happier with sheep and gave her to me. Wrong. When I pulled the truck into a field to let her off, 20 or so ewes trotted over to see her. Maybelle ran to the barn and hid. She reluctantly joined the flock and raised a few sets of twin lambs, but continuously wandered off inspecting things irrelevant to real sheep. When the bear wanted to fatten herself before hibernating, guess who she caught? A neighbor saw it. We found the remains of Maybelle buried under leaves the next day.
Like elephants, sheep never forget, form strong family bonds and sometimes enemies. Jennifer never forgave my husband for removing a can she accidentally wedged onto her foot. She associated the pain caused by the can with him. For the next 14 years, she ran away when she saw him.
Jennifer was my first sheep, a pet lamb raised on a bottle in 1976. When she was 13 and well beyond her nine-year life expectancy, I decided to put her on a flat summer pasture instead of her regular one with steep hillsides. She started lagging behind the flock. Poor Jennifer, she won’t make it through the winter, I thought when bringing her home that fall. But she did. In the spring she somehow ended up on the truck hauling ewes to the steep pasture. When I let them off the truck, Jennifer dashed up the nearest hill, kicking her heels up and bucking like a two-month-old lamb. I can’t swear sheep get depressed, but they obviously like familiar things. She acted like any other sheep for two more years until arthritis rendered her unable to walk.
Once I sold a small group of ewes to a gentleman. Three years later he sells the farm and asks if I want them back. I go to get them and he says, “They are in a big bunch on that hill. Can you can pick yours out if we get them all in a pen?”
Partly in jest, I say, “I’ll just call mine down.” When I holler “sheeeee-ep,” much to our surprise, they break from the flock and come running. Onto the truck and home they go.
As before, soon as the ewes at home notice new arrivals, they come to investigate. Old Eighteen stands on the edge of the truck bed with a scowl on her face. In the field, Jennifer’s daughter Muff moves forward with her head lowered. They rush toward each other and butt heads. Pow!
Oops, I forgot. I never could keep those two in the same field. They fight, don’t like each other.
Sheep don’t forget – even if shepherds do.
The Wool Market: Little Change Since 1812
Since the War of 1812, the race for public favor between wool and cotton had been fast and furious. Spain’s use of the Merino breed of sheep gave it a competitive edge early in the running, but America still held out hope as “Merino Madness” soon overtook the country.
“I think it not only possible, but probable, that in 10 or 15 years, we may raise more fine wool than all of Europe,” proclaimed Baltimore editor Hezekiah Niles in December of 1814. “It is proved, that the Merino increases in value on our soil, and that they are of better quality here than in far-famed Spain. The fabled golden fleece is really ours, and in the space allowed…the United States will be the grand market of the world of wool.”
But the Depression of 1819, its lingering effects on agricultural prices throughout the 1820s, and debate over the effectiveness of a protective tariff in 1828 – not to mention the public’s growing demand for cotton – intervened. American Merino wool which sold for a high of 46 cents per pound in 1824 dropped to below 32 cents by 1829, as a glut of wool on the world market and cheaper British imports continued to hold wool’s dominance in check.
“Wool will scarcely sell at all,” complained a Pennsylvania farmer in February of 1829. “I may be flattered to hold out till the next session of Congress – or else I know of nothing better that I could do in order to save a little of my former earnings, than disposing of part of my flock to the butcher, and knock the remaining in the head and bury them.”
The tariff on woolen goods imported from Europe passed by Congress in 1832 provided some relief, allowing one New York farmer to relate by the fall of 1833 that “the advance on wool in Europe has enabled the domestic [American] manufacturer to give a fair price for wool this season.”
But the farmer was, at the same time, cautious, adding that “The flour mill will continue to grind if wheat is reduced to 50 cents per bushel – and the woolen mill will move if fine wool falls to 25 cents per lb. But the wheat cannot be supplied at 50 cents, nor the wool at 25, without corresponding reductions in the value of land and labor.”
It’s a familiar story even today, as many small sheep farmers throughout the Blue Ridge region are faced with low prices, dwindling demand and animals that just won’t “pay for their keep.” Just as in earlier times, a glut of wool on the world market and the unpredictable cycle of supply and demand is working against the sheep farmer.
“Historically, say in the last three to four years, there’s been a good supply of wool on the international market,” explains Scott Greiner, Extension Sheep Specialist for Virginia Tech of this all-too-familiar trend. “It’s as much a global issue as it is a U.S. issue.”
Wool that today sells for 25 cents a pound, which in the not-so-distant past would have sold for two-three times that, is now considered as worthless as it was in the late 1820s. While short of just “knocking them in the head,” horror stories tell of farmers who are shearing their sheep, dumping the wool into ditches on their farms and using it for landscaping.
On the bright side, however, specialty wools such as cotswold and alpaca continue in great demand, thanks to hand spinners and a knitting boom that is currently sweeping the country.
A Sheep Country Drive Tour
The largest concentration of sheep in the Blue Ridge is in and west of the central Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. See if you can spot large white guard dogs and llamas tucked into the flocks by shepherds to guard them from coyotes, bears and other predators. Guard dogs look a lot like the sheep, but llamas’ long necks make them easier to spot.
Drive time: About 4.5 hours at a leisurely pace – 35-40 mph – not including inevitable stops. Fill your gas tank. Gas stations are scarce in sheep country.
The loop: Exit 225 from I-81 onto Va. 275 west on north side of Staunton, Va. About 10 minutes to U.S. 250 west (right.) One hour, 15 minutes to Va. 637 north (right.) This is the first road beyond Monterey, but four miles and over Monterey Mountain in the Blue Grass Valley. Va. 637 merges into 640. Continue north straight through the village of Blue Grass to U.S. 220, about 15 minutes. North (left) on U.S. 220 to Franklin, W.Va, about 25 minutes. Take U.S. 33 east (right at light) to Harrisonburg, Va., about one hour. At this point you may take the fast-track on I-81 back to Staunton (25 minutes) or continue your sheep tour at a more leisurely pace and return to Staunton on U.S. 42 south (right) in 45 minutes or U.S. 11 south (right) in 35 minutes. More sheep live on U.S. 42 than U.S. 11. Both return you to U.S. 250 east (left) to Staunton.
- Almost all lambs are born with very long tails. Shepherds dock lambs’ tails to prevent hygiene problems caused by grazing lush pastures.
- White wool is dominant. A ewe with black wool can have white lambs, black lambs or both at the same time. So can a white ewe.
- Most newborn black lambs grow into adults with white wool, but black faces and legs.
- The hoofs of sheep with fast-growing soft fine wool grow faster and are softer than hoofs of sheep with slower-growing coarse wool.
- Sheep “language” includes different baaa-as for “hello newborn baby,” “Where are you?” “I’m here,” “help!” “hurry up and feed me,” and “back off.”
- Rams really will chase people and butt them, particularly people they know.
- Ewes, not just rams, have horns. Although male hormones influence horn development, it’s the breed, not gender of sheep that determines who gets them.
From a Sheep Herder's Journal...
I was awakened from my sleep by the sound of a dog barking – our dog Lady, announcing to the world that we had unwelcome visitors approaching. Bolting up out of bed and opening the bedroom window I could hear them quite plainly – a pack of yapping coyotes. Most nights I would lazily acknowledge them in the distance, but this time they were closer and more menacing. Having descended from their rugged hillside habitat across the valley, they were now on our side of the creek, at our very gate.
I quickly pulled warm clothes on and made my way out the door, grabbing my staff. The moon was full, and as I walked up the farm road to the paddocks out beyond the barn, I could hear the coyotes hurriedly following the fence line ahead of me, and Lady doing her job, herding them on and letting them know they would not be stopping by for dinner.
As I stood out in the middle of the field that night, staff in hand, moonbeams breaking through the silhouettes of low cirrus clouds spitting puffs of snow, I thought to myself: So this is what they meant in the Bible when they referred to “watching over one’s flocks by night.”
Standing there in silence, surrounded by a nervously attentive flock of Jacobs and Cotswolds, I thought about Lynn and Ora Tusing, two elderly Mennonite women who used to live up on top of North Mountain near Mathias, W.Va. I had spent just such a night as this at their old family home back in the early 1970s. After a day of learning how to spin wool from 82-year-old Ora and watching 73-year-old Lynn weave coverlets on an ancient loom built by her grandfather, making hominy from wood ash and herding in the mountain goats from their far, snow-covered lair, I lay awake on a rope bed in the Tusing sisters’ dark attic. Protected from the cold by a thick layer of homemade comforters that smelled of cedar, a skiff of fine snow still managed to titillate my nose as it blew under the house’s hand-split white oak shingles, filling the room like a good dousing of fairy dust.
My life has taken many lucky twists and turns since then. But the most unpredictable event of all is that I should be standing here tonight. But that’s the nature of life (and farming) – you never really know. True to form, it has been a year of unpredictability. Not expecting to feed hay until December, the dry weather necessitated a start in October. Likewise, de-worming that would have ordinarily been over with by early November has now continued into January on account of the few wet spells and warm temperatures we’ve had.
But there is one thing I am pleasantly quite sure of. With lambing season just around the corner, it will be spring again. And there will be more mouths to feed, more wool to clean, card and spin and more opportunity to appreciate a life lived by the seasons and not the clock.
–Gary Winkler, Breckinridge Mill Farm