I dropped Matthew off in Charlottesville, Virginia and then continued westward on Route 64 to Route 81, turned north and hopped off at Verona. From there it was a short distance up to Fort Defiance (there is a military museum there that I may have to drag Ken to visit) and on to visit with Alice, who raises sheep.
Most specifically, she is raising a variety of sheep. Among them was Shetland, Icelandic, Finn, and Suffolk.
And, of course, I forgot to take pictures.
I learned a lot.
- Shetland Sheep can be very skittish if not handled and talked to a lot. Alice had in her flock three shetlands that she called "wild" sheep. This is because they apparently were never socialized in any way and the very thought of being near a human (much less handled by one) sent them into flying about the barn and paddock, literally bouncing off the walls.
- When sheep catch a cold they get runny noses and like small children, the snot goes everywhere. And thus, they share their germs. Fortunately, once caught, it is relatively easy give them medicine via an injection.
- Sheep feet are really interesting. There is a soft pad (like the pad on a dog's foot), around this, on the sides, grows a nail. It's just like a fingernail and if left untrimmed can grow to the point that the animal becomes lame. One of Alice's newest ewes had clearly never had it's toenails clipped and it was literally walking on top the nail that had grown down and around. But clipping, like medicating, is not too big a deal so long as the animal is well restrained.
- Every breed of sheep and even sheep within each breed has a unique fleece. This is such a tactile matter, it's hard to describe. But when you get a bunch of them together it's really easy to see and feel the differences.
- Bottle babies are very cute but can have a hard time learning to be sheep. They think humans are sheep and tend to want to flock with humans rather than with other sheep. But they are really, really cute.
- Shetlands and Icelandics are just the right size for me to handle.
- Until I lose a lot more weight, climbing fences is out of the question.
- If you keep the blades on the electric shears short, you cut the sheep less. The blades cost about $50 each and will rust if you try to take a short cut and remove the lanolin build-up by dipping it into hot water. Use a wire brush to remove this. Change blades about once every three or four sheep.
- Icelandic fleece is really, really nice stuff and I have one half of a hoggett fleece drying in my living room right now. I washed it up this morning. A small sheep will provide about 2 pounds of fiber on a good day. Some years you only get one.
- Shetland sheep are very, very smart and learn quickly.
- Since the small sheep produced only about 2 pounds of fleece, and you might be able to sell that for $20 a pound, it is very difficult (if not currently impossible) to reach a break-even point financially with them alone. However, by adding meat sheep to the picture, there is hope for the small shepherd.
- Cherry tree leaves are poisonous to sheep and must be removed from any pasture where they live. On the same token, they love honeysuckle and brambles and will clear a hedgerow with ease.
- Fencing required for sheep must be at least 4 feet tall. Barbed wire should only be at the very bottom and/or the very top as the sheep can hurt themselves on it. Wooden posts every 10 feet with a metal pole in between works well for sheep. Gates CAN be tied on with twine so hinges may not be necessary in all cases.
- Sheep will grow well on Johnson grass but they love alfalfa hay. The round bales of basic hay cost about $30 each at least out in Fort Defiance.
- There are other people in Virginia raising Shetland Sheep but they keep it very quiet.
- Shearing is MUCH easier with a shearing stand. Even if the animal won't stand, just having them off the ground is easier on the back.
- Sheep love graham crackers. Some sheep think their cookies are only good if eaten directly from the hand and won't touch a graham cracker that has touched the ground. Silly sheep.
- The rise, in Shetland Sheep, is the point where the old fleece has stopped growing and the new one has started. Trying to cut through the rise is nigh on impossible. Cut above or below.
- Registering your sheep with NSSA costs money but if you want to sell the offspring to serious sheep people, they really should be registered.
- It may be possible to rent pasture from someone who is trying to get the tax break for farming. YOU have to pay for the fensing, the animals and their winter feed, but if you can find someone who will let you use their land, they get the tax break and you don't have to actually pay for it.