We are preparing in summer 2019 to bring a small flock of Hog Island sheep to the farm. Having sheep here will help us to control the overgrowth and improve soil quality naturally in the field. We plan to use the manure to amend the soil and to heat our garden hot bed. Herding the sheep will also allow our border collie to help with the work around here in a way that is instinctive for her. We have selected Hog Island sheep because as excellent foragers they are better equipped to help manage overgrowth than other breeds. This will also give us an opportunity to help preserve one of the rarest sheep breeds in the world, which is native to Virginia and which greatly resembles the sheep that were historically kept on early American farms. Even before we bring lambs here, we are starting on a project to educate the public about the critically endangered breed and the high quality wool they produce. Turning Hog Island sheep wool into a marketable product will be a key to helping save the breed, so that they will again have value to farmers.
History of Hog Island Sheep
Hog Island is a 45,000 acre barrier island in the Atlantic, off the Eastern Shore of Virginia, and the original home to the rare breed of sheep named for the island. First inhabited by British colonists in 1672's, the island was originally called Machipongo. After being temporarily abandoned and then resettled around the time of the Revolution, Hog Island became home to sheep, pigs, goats, chickens, and cows. The town on the island was quite small and so this left a lot of space for the livestock to roam free. In the 1930's and 40's a series of hurricanes which flooded the island and eroded the shoreline made life on there unsustainable, and people evacuated the island, taking their livestock and floating buildings on barges to the Eastern Shore. Many hog island buildings remain today in the towns of of Willis Wharf and Oyster. When the island was abandoned, most of the sheep were taken from the island. Around 18 sheep, however, were left behind, where they flourished as they always had on the island free from predators. Feral sheep are rare throughout the world, because sheep are basically defenseless against predators. For this reason, the few groups of feral sheep in the world tend to be posited on islands which are free from predators. In the 1978, the Nature Conservancy, who manages the island today, found that the population had grown to around 100 sheep. Most of these sheep were removed from the island and studied at Virginia Tech, before being given permanent homes at Historic sites such as George Washington's Birthplace, Gunston Hall, the National Colonial Farm, and Mount Vernon, and Colonial Williamsburg. The sheep are a favorite for display at historic museums because they resemble the sheep kept by early Americans and their isolation from modern breeds of sheep has kept them more genetically similar to the historic sheep from which they descended. The breed are thought to be descended from Merino sheep, left on the barrier islands by Spaniards, along with one or more popular English breeds of the time, possibly the Improved Leicester. A few introductions of outside breeds did occur, notably the introduction of a Hampshire ram in 1953. Nonetheless, the breed's great extent of isolation and the characteristics of the environment have encouraged the development of a quite unique breed which displays many characteristics not present in modern sheep. The sheep are noted for their small size, hardiness, their excellent foraging ability, their efficient use of food, and easy lambing (ewes are said to most often give birth to twins). These characteristics certainly helped the sheep to survive unaided by humans on their island home. Surrounded by salt water in their natural habitat, Hog Island sheep have also been noticed to drink much less water than other sheep of comparable size. Removed from their island habitat, the sheep require protection from predators and must be kept protected by people in fenced areas as are other sheep. This change in lifestyle will certainly change the unique qualities of the breed to some extent, but this is the only way now that this rare and special breed may be preserved. Farmers keeping the sheep have already reported an increase in the size of the sheep. One of the rarest sheep breeds in the world today, the Livestock Conservancy lists the breed's status as critical, meaning that less than two hundred sheep registered annually in the US and a worldwide population of less than 2,000. So few are the sheep that there is danger of inbreeding with pure stock. Still-born lambs and atypical looking sheep have been reported by some breeders. For this reason, some breeders have crossed their Hog Island sheep with other breeds, and then breed the offspring with pure Hog Island sheep to increase genetic diversity while maintaining a relatively pure breed. It will only be with concerted and sustained effort that the breed will be saved from extinction.
Hog Island Sheep Wool
Hog Island Sheep were traditionally used primarily for their wool. Even as they are today, pork and beef were preferred to lamb by early English settlers on Hog Island. Today, the competition of numerous synthetic fibers has driven down the price of wool making it difficult for small sheep farmers to make a profit selling wool. As a result many small farmers keeping sheep give away, throw away, or compost the wool after the annual sheering of sheep. The livestock conservancy has launched a project designed to help increase the value of rare sheep breeds traditionally used for their wool called "Shave 'em to Save 'em." Even before we bring sheep to the farm here, we are working with Hog Island Sheep wool to determine the best uses and methods for preparing the wool for marketing Hog Island Wool as a specialty product. Every wool has its own unique qualities making it suitable for some specific use. Since we do not know much about wool, we are enlisting experts in the field to help at this stage. Working with sheep farmers who are currently using and selling wool from their flocks, fiber artists, and fashion designers, we are working to develop a marketing campaign to teach the public about the rare breed and its unique and valuable wool.