On the eastern coast of the United States, a true American sheep breed lives scattered among plantation sites and a few individuals determined to protect it. The sheep’s origins are as fuzzy as the stories of their introduction to Hog Island, once one of the larger barrier islands off the Virginia coast. But it is the plucky little sheep’s survival and consequent evolution that makes it an American treasure.
Historic American Breed
Buck Jarusek-farm manager and shepherd of a Hog Island flock at Gunston Hall Plantation in Mason Neck, Virginia-believes that the sheep were brought to the island in the late 1600s. Colonists were given supplies, but the animals they were given by their king were not of the highest quality. “It is very possible that the sheep came at that point in time, but economics were involved,” says Jarusek. “The British didn’t want the Americas taking part of the wool market that Europe had a very good hold on. They probably only sent mediocre sheep and they probably sent them just enough to get by.”
Polled Hog Island sheep (Photo courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)
Records show that the island was licensed to John Curry in the late 1700s “for the purpose of raising sheep.”
Nearly one hundred years later, when the island became a hot spot for upscale hunting and fishing clubs, the sheep ran loose on the island. The tight-knit community had divided the ewes among themselves and marked them by notching their ears and those of their lambs with a corresponding notch. However, they were allowed to roam at will and were only gathered when needed for shearing.
“They were eating salt grass, drinking brackish water, and these sheep thrived. They were so wild that it was impossible to restrain them,” says Jarusek. “They would have to tie all four legs together and roll them around on tables. They didn’t respond like other sheep did when you put them on their rumps to work with them.”
In 1933, a hurricane destroyed most of Hog Island and the residents were evacuated, leaving the sheep on the island to fend for themselves.
The Nature Conservancy took over the island in the early 1970s and transferred the flock to Virginia Tech, who quickly realized the breed was genetically unique. They turned most of their flock over to [historical parks such as] the Gunston Hall Plantation, Williamsburg, George Washington’s birthplace and Mount Vernon Estate Plantation in order to preserve the breed.
Today’s Hog Island Sheep
With fewer than 200 registered head of sheep, the breed is listed as critical by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. “We don’t know the specifics of the breed, so we can only talk in generalities,” says Don Bixby, DVM, technical programs director of the ALBC. “It is a breed that persisted under an unusual selection criterion-natural selection rather than human intervention. Mother Nature is interested in a hardy creature that perpetuates itself. Humans are interested in that too, but we get sort of sidetracked. We start looking for more meat, more fleece-and quicker. This breed probably retains some very basic hardiness characteristics that we have not yet really identified.”
Peggy Grant of Fairfield, North Carolina, currently has a flock of five Hog Island sheep. She and her husband John Herina acquired their first Hog Island sheep when they went to look at a boat that was for sale. The boat’s owner had a small flock, and the two were taken with the breed and its unusual history. They bought the boat with the condition that they could have a sheep from the owner’s flock. They came home with a ram, and soon after acquired several ewes from Mount Vernon Plantation.
They pastured their flock on an acre of land, but soon cut it to a half-acre. Grant still has to mow the pasture a few times during the summer because the sheep survive on so little. And she has noticed a strong flocking instinct. When a fire in her area caused clouds of smoke to roll across her property, her ram herded his ewes into a nearby barn and stood guard at the entry. The ewes survived; unfortunately, her ram died of smoke inhalation.
Mature Hog Island sheep are light-boned and weigh around 100 pounds, with a wool production between 3 to 4 pounds. The ewes often have horns, and horns with both ewes and rams vary from scurs to polls to curled horns. Some of Gunston Hall’s ewes have a wide set and slightly curled horn similar to a Jacob sheep.
Jarusek says that twins are common in his flock at Gunston Hall, and triplets are sometimes seen. He breeds his ewes in their second year and hopes for fewer lambs, as the extras end up as bottle babies. “We do sell spring lamb and market lamb. Thirty little rams are not going to help you.”
Hog Island Challenges
Grahame Ruddock co-owns Lowland Farms in Greenville, Virginia, and has worked with Hog Island sheep in the past. He agrees with Jarusek that multiple births can be problematic. “One big problem I have found is that they produce more animals than they are capable of caring for-they will triplet quite a bit. And they are nibblers-they don’t eat volumes of food. So it can be a bit of a problem maintaining condition on them. You can actually get into twin lamb disease and some of these things. So your winter feed has to be quite concentrated and pretty high on mineral level.”
They triplet quite a bit… (Photo courtesy of Historic Mt. Vernon)
Lambs are small and meat light, so a longer feed time is required to bring them to market weight-lambs such as Cotswolds grow two times larger than Hog Island lambs in the same paddock. However, multiple births would be ideal for a smaller farm interested in self-sufficiency rather than market production.
Dr. Bixby notes, “These sheep had limited nutrition-whatever was there was what they had to eat and they became rather efficient at using pretty low grade forages. Once they get on a higher level of nutrition then multiple births are a distinct possibility. What is interesting here is the ability to increase productivity once the nutritional level is available.”
Hog Islanders are extremely low-maintenance-a plus for small hobby farmers or shepherds with limited physical capabilities. “They are good hay feeders. They may receive a cup of feed a day, and that would be a lot. For a time, we were overfeeding and they were extremely fat,” admits Jarusek. “Gunston Hall treated them right out of the books. We followed feed rations and wormings for domestic sheep. We killed a few with kindness before we realized we had to treat them differently.”
Jarusek has also noticed that his flock sheds their fleece naturally in the spring. But due to the inconsistency of the shed, and to make the flock look more pleasing for visitors, Jarusek hires a shearer to come in once a year.
The sheep at Mt. Vernon are also sheared once a year, and Julie George, a volunteer with Mt. Vernon Plantation, skirts the shorn fleece for prime wool. A change from overhead hayracks to a ground level feeder improved the cleanliness and quality, allowing a better result from George’s first wash. George determined each sheep produces 3-5 pounds of raw, medium-coarse grade fleece.
Color is inconsistent-black sheep are present in most flocks and often a mature white-wooled sheep will have spots of black. Because of the sheep’s historical significance, George does not blend the wool with that of other sheep. However, she believes it would blend easily with other fibers. “It spins easily, cleans easily, takes dye beautifully, and is comparable in strength to other breed wools of comparative grade.”
George has found that a commercial woolen mill produces the nicest product because of the short crimp of the fiber, but her preferred preparation is hand combing. “It makes a much nicer spinning product. This wool makes a nice yarn, even a nice single, whether spun woolen or worsted.”
Both she and Jarusek have noticed an extremely high lanolin content, especially in the black wool. “It actually looks almost like chunks of wax in their armpits,” says Jarusek. “In the wild, it would have helped take care of scratches and infection and also a great insect repellant. Those islands are mosquito heaven, and there is bot fly and deerfly. A large amount of lanolin against that skin would keep them off.”
The Hog Island sheep are concentrated in the Virginia and North Carolina area, so for those who are thinking of trying the sheep in another region, preparations must be made for sheep or lamb purchases and future breeding or additions to flocks. And pedigrees are still sketchy.
Color is inconsistent. (Photo courtesy of Mt. Vernon Ladies Association)
“One of the dilemmas is that there is no breed association structure so pedigrees are not documented,” says Dr. Bixby. “This breed is held in the hands of very few people, so it is easier to tell who is related to whom. But the more sheep there are, the more difficult it will be for people to make selections to maintain the genetic diversity within this population. What is needed now is some kind of a pedigree registry so that people can keep better track of what is going on. We are attempting to do that. Mt. Vernon has done a wonderful job of not only registering their stock, and the ones that they sell; they are trying to get other breeders to do the same thing.”
Grahame Roddock Ssays the Hog Island sheep is an ideal home animal that would work for 4-H projects as well. “They are good for a very small farm that wants just a few sheep, and aren’t out for massive production. They want something to pasture, to be easy to manage, and that the ladies can also be handling and dealing with. Their hide would make very durable sheepskin rugs and would make things like slippers and sheepskin gloves…. Don’t expect to go into freezer meat production with them or masses of spinning wool. They have wonderful character and personality, and they are easy to look after. They have definitely got their place.”
For more information on the Hog Island sheep or other rare breeds, visit the following websites:
Julie George’s business, Julie’s Handspun Yarns (whose website is www.hand spunyarns.com) has a licensing agreement with Mount Vernon for the use of their flock’s wool. A percentage of the sales price of the Hog Island wool product-natural roving, dyed roving, handspun yarn or some other finished article-goes back to Mt. Vernon for the care and improvement of this rare breed flock.