Friday, March 7, 2014
The boat pulled away from the town dock with nine human passengers and a ram heading to an island in Penobscot Bay for Straw Farm’s Spring Sheep Drive. I’d begged a spot and waited weeks through weather delays to be part of this unique tradition. Names and backgrounds were exchanged as we settled into the short ride.
Lee Straw, owner of Straw Farm in Newcastle, Maine, has been shearing for around 45 years and is at once a man of purpose, admired for his shepherding skills, and compassion (on our last day on the island he quickly, gently lifted a lamb to safety). He would be responsible for teaching us how to herd and assist in the shearing process.
Emily Garnett, who is a familiar face at shearing demos, and who Lee describes as the best shearer in Maine, because she is fast and does not make second cuts, was also aboard, as was Lee’s son Aran Straw.
As we approached the island, one could see the sheep dotting the landscape. It was picture-perfect with the herd stretched out grazing in bright green pasture and by a few modest dwellings (the island is semi-private, thus the name is being withheld from this story).
In the 21 years Lee Straw has managed this island flock, he has seen some pretty amazing things during the spring drive. “One year, the year after I took over, there was one big lamb, and we could see it moving and running, but it didn’t look right and then when we got it caught we saw that it didn’t have any legs, it had stumps,” Lee recalled. “It’s mother was such a good mother, it was born obviously like in February on a very cold day. The mother was able to nurse it and clean it off and everything, but didn’t clean it quick enough good enough that it’s legs got frostbite and it lost its legs, but the lamb survived. We left it here (on the island) that summer and it grew, and took it home (in the fall) and it was a regular slaughter lamb. That’s one of the more amazing things I’ve seen out here. This flock of sheep has been on its own for over 200 years with different rams being brought in so the genetics change, but the mothering ability of the ewes, because it’s survival of the fittest, is incredible. You have people on the mainland that it’s lambing time, every two hours they have to get up and check on the sheep. Nobody checks on them out here. And, yes we lose a few, but if they’re born, if our management system is working right, lambs don’t come till the last week of April and the ewes can handle pretty much whatever is thrown at them and they take really good care of the lambs and that’s one of the most amazing things about this flock of sheep.”
It is estimated sheep have lived on the island for over two centuries. Lee said the belief is early settlers of Maine brought their livestock to the island, because it was devoid of large predators. It is assumed, they returned annually to round them up and harvest their fiber (a product then more coveted than the meat).
The exact origin of the island’s sheep is unknown. Lee said they are mixed with a base of North Country Cheviot, a dual-purpose (meat and wool) breed that originated in the Scotland Highlands and is described as hardy, resilient, accustomed to rugged terrain, and as being good mothers. A mature North Country Cheviot ewe averages 180 pounds and a mature ram around 300 pounds. According to The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook by Deborah Robson and Carol Ekarius, Cheviots were first imported to New York in 1838. The American North Country Cheviot Sheep Association estimates the first North Country Cheviots were imported to North America in 1944.
A group of sheep is called a flock or a herd. Adult female sheep are referred to as ewes, intact males as rams, castrated males as wethers, and younger sheep as lambs.
Because Lee only goes to the island for a few days two or three times a year, the fences of the herding pens need to be mended each visit. Wood is brought from the mainland, a bit of hammering, and an hour or so later the pens are ready to hold the island’s flock of nearly 200 sheep.
With that task completed, we were ready to herd the sheep into the pens. Herding takes a great deal of skill and intuition. Lee takes advantage of the sheep’s flocking behavior to move them. All nine of us spread out along one part of the island, creating a wide line of bodies and sneaking up behind and alongside the flock and urging them forward. Occasionally, there would be a straggler, who Lee or Aran would have to go back for. One has to be completely aware of fellow herders, the sheep, and the ground (in this case marshy and rocky). Sheep are not as dumb as their stereotype. If given the chance, they will break from the herd and flee to “safer” ground, where it is much more difficult to catch them. Sheep have good hearing, and are sensitive to noise (e.g. humans yelling) when being handled, so we used hand signals to communicate some with each other and followed our instincts to a degree. Sheep have a field of vision of around 300 degrees, so they can see you coming from every direction but directly behind them. That can work to a herder’s advantage as long as you are in the right place when they spot you.
This year Lee and Aran, who has joined his dad for the island drives since he was nine-years-old, thought the spring drive went reasonably well, with all the sheep getting caught. The exception was the lamb crop, which was way down due to not all the sheep getting caught in the 2012 spring sheep drive and ewes getting impregnated early and lambing in February when they often cannot survive. The island flock currently has 100 ewes, 89 lambs and several rams. Normally, Lee said they have well over 100 lambs.
When you participate in an event like this, you truly understand real food takes effort. A lot of it! Things can and do go wrong, adding to the workload and farmer’s risks. I asked Aran about problems that can occur during the spring drive. “People not paying attention to the sheep in front of them, bunching together to talk, and as a result the sheep getting by them and (us) missing a few,” he said. In fact, we caught three sheep the first day that had snuck by the herding team from the prior year’s drive. This is a big deal. rams need to be separated from ewes during the summer, so the ewes do not become impregnated too early and start lambing during the winter in snow banks rather than on green grass.
It can be a pretty steep learning curve for most folks new to sheep herding/shearing and Aran said people and sheep can get hurt in the pens. From what I saw, Lee, Emily, and Aran were pretty on top of managing the folks in the pens at every stage.
Common procedures in raising sheep include lambs having their tales removed to reduce the build up of feces, which can encourage maggots. This is known as docking. There is also castrating. Lee uses a burdizzo on the male lambs to crush the blood vessels in the testicles, to reduce the risk of unwanted breeding.
Garnett and Lee went into adjacent pens, each with someone to help catch and bring them a sheep. As they sheared, they moved swiftly, gracefully.
Shearing is hard physical work, requiring physical strength and a calm demeanor. A great deal of skill is involved in handling the sheep and removing the wool in one piece. Garnett and Lee use the New Zealand method of electric shearing to remove the fleece from the sheep. Notice in this video the position the shearer puts the sheep in and how he controls the sheep with his feet. The second video is a clearer example of the New Zealand shearing method.
The wool is placed on the wool table, where the dirtiest parts of fiber (dry feces, vegetation, burrs) are removed.
Factors used to determine the quality of the wool include the thickness of the wool, the staple length (a lock of shorn wool) and strength, color (lighter fibers are more desirable), and yield (bulkiness). The nicest wool is rolled into bed linens to be sold to handspinners at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Common Ground Fair. The other wool is designated for Maine’s Wool Pool stuffed into the wool bag (a long bag, which during shearing is held up on a ladder like stand). Many counties and states have wool pools. A wool pool is a group of sheep producers who combine their wool to market it directly to a warehouse or woolen mill.
Towards the end of the weekend, the rams were moved to an adjacent island, where they will remain until around Labor Day Weekend when Lee, Aran, and crew return to the island to roundup those sheep they will finish at the farm before sending out to be processed and delivered to restaurants including Fore Street in Portland, Maine.
“Lee's lambs are central to Fore Street's menu for so many reasons -- taste, obviously and paramount,” said Sam Hayward, Chef and Co-Owner Fore Street Restaurant. “Preparing and serving them also engage me and our diners when we connect Lee's story, Maine's history, how we inhabit and make use of the land, and the Gulf of Maine ecosystem. All of these factors produce the distinct terroir, unique to Maine, that we strive constantly to tease out of the foods we serve.”
With our tired limbs we found our seats on the boat, physically exhausted and inspired.
Straw Farm products (eggs, lamb, milk) are available at Rosemont Markets, the Saturday Portland, Maine farmers’ market, Rockland, Maine farmers’ market , and Dandelion Spring/Straw Farm CSA. http://dandelionspringfarm.wordpress.com/csa-info/
To receive email notices about sheep-related educational offerings, visit the University of Maine Cooperative Extension: Livestock website.
The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook by Deborah Robson and Carol Ekarius
Good Meat: The Complete Guide to Sourcing and Cooking Sustainable Meat by Deborah Krasner (contains 34 lamb recipes)
Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.
When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.
In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.