How it Works: Raising Sheep

I am sitting at Eleanor and David Stanwood’s kitchen table in West Tisbury. It’s the end of February and out the back window a slate sky is beginning to spit snow and out behind the barn three ewes have just given birth. Spring lambs, Vineyard-style.

The Stanwoods are no strangers to sheep. At one time Eleanor was a professional shearer, and together they have raised sheep on the Vineyard, on and off, for many years.

So I say, “Let’s start at the beginning: If I want to raise sheep, what do I do?”

David’s answer: “Do you want wool or do you want meat?”

He then goes on to explain that the finer the wool the poorer the quality of meat and vice versa, so depending on what you want, you choose the breed that will give you the best results.

Several years ago, the Stanwoods raised a good dual-purpose breed called Romneys, but currently they’re raising Katahdins, or as David refers to them, “the breed of the future.” One reason for the Stanwoods’ shift in breeds is the decline of the wool industry in the northeast. Eleanor explains that back in the eighties there was a regional “wool pool” that would guarantee a price. She remembers how everyone would meet the buyers at the ferry with giant burlap bags full of fleece. But now most of the industry for cleaning and processing has moved out west or is in New Zealand, and by the time you pay to have your sheep sheared, it’s tough to make any money.

Katahdins are “hair sheep” or “naked sheep” – they don’t produce wool. They were developed in Maine by a man who wanted them to clear grass under power lines so he wouldn’t have to use defoliants and he bred for a specific set of characteristics. He wanted them to be hearty, easy to maintain, and friendly, with good-tasting meat. And as David attests, he succeeded on every count, including having some of the leanest, most delicious meat he’s ever tasted.

Next question: “How many sheep should I raise?”

The Stanwoods have seven ewes and a ram. David explains that sheep have a natural flocking instinct, so in order for them to grow and prosper you really shouldn’t have fewer than three or four. The general rule of thumb for how much grazing land you need is six sheep per one acre of good, rich pastureland. The Stanwoods only have about half an acre of grazing land, so their sheep also graze on land belonging to an agreeable neighbor.

In the warm months, in addition to grass, the sheep really only need water, mineral salt, and some sort of shelter. A simple four-by-eight-foot plywood lean-to with no sides works just fine. In the winter, the Stanwoods put the sheep in their barn, but Eleanor claims that a southerly facing lean-to with side walls is sufficient. And since there is no grass in the winter, they eat hay. Seven sheep will generally go through about a bale a day.

Next question: “What about predators?”

Probably the biggest threat to sheep on the Island is dogs. One way to counter that is with a dog of your own; the Stanwoods used to have a Great Pyrenees herding dog that lived with the flock and kept them safe. But with their relatively small flock, they can keep predators at bay and the flock contained with electric netting – a mesh fence with an electric charge.

Next question: “How do you breed them?”

For you city folks, this is where the ram comes in. “Rams can be a bit tricky,” explains David. “Once they get to be around two years old, they get big and can be dangerous.” If you look on a chart of the New England coastline, you’ll see a lot of Ram Islands. Back in the day they probably were not a good place to go for a picnic.

The ewes have about a five-month gestation period, so for spring lambs they generally breed in October. The Stanwoods separate the ram from the ewes in September and bring him back to breed a month later, so they can plan for late February or early March births.

Another advantage of Katahdin sheep is that they’re very independent and don’t need assistance in giving birth. This is not always the case with other sheep. “About all we have to do is put a little Betadine on the umbilical chord,” says Eleanor. “We give the mother a special treat of molasses and water – it makes the milk flow more freely. We also contain the mother and baby for a few hours after the birth; it gives them a chance to acclimate and bond.”

Last question: “What about the harvest?”

If you’re raising sheep for wool, the shearing is done in the spring while the sheep still have their full winter coat. But if you’re raising meat, the slaughter generally takes place when the grass runs out, around November.

David explains that if the meat is for personal consumption, you can find someone on the Island to dress the sheep or if you know how, you can do it yourself. There’s also a slaughterhouse in Bridgewater that’s not USDA-certified. But if the meat is to be sold, it has to be USDA-inspected and there are only two certified slaughterhouses in Massachusetts: Adams Farms in Athol and the aptly named Blood Farm in Groton.

After talking with the Stanwoods, I received this note from Eleanor: “When one embarks on an agricultural use of land, the land remains open. There is a very subtle, yet demonstrative, statement to our community, as a whole. Keep the land open and put it into agricultural use. When we use land to provide our neighbors with food products, it is a sure way to preserve its openness. When one sees that land is being used for agriculture, it does make a difference to ourselves and to those of the next generation who will inherit this land.”