Somewhere along the line, my husband and I decided we weren’t busy enough with three jobs, two horses and who-knows-how-many chickens and ducks. We had an insatiable urge to put up more fencing and build more stalls. “Let’s get sheep!” we said.
It’s been a goal for a long time – some sheep to help with grass management, offer some company for the horses and generally be adorable. We’re both avid knitters, and have wanted to produce our own wool for a while. A trip to the Maryland Sheep and Wool festival a few years ago settled it – we had to get Gotland sheep. This month, we did.
Pippi, Hilma and Albin are partially Gotlands – a breed that hails from the island Gotland in Sweden. Karl, my husband, has Swedish heritage, thus the Scandinavian connection.
Gotlands are descendants of Viking sheep, made substantially less ferocious over the centuries. Born black and gradually fading to gray, they grow a densely curly, blue-gray fleece highlighted with white and are a small, hardy creature. They’re kind and curious and not at all prone to marauding. Ours are pretty much like Labradors. They wag their tails and bleat when people walk by and they love back and belly rubs. Strangely, these don’t seem keen on being outside, but we’re working on that.
We went to Pennsylvania to retrieve our first three Gotlands (more to come!) in a rented van heavily lined with tarps and equipped with one of those pine-tree things, for the smell. We filled the back with straw and hay and took off, making great time until we hit the New Jersey Turnpike, and then we crawled painfully slowly toward Maine. Even public radio and seriously powerful air conditioning couldn’t ease the sheep’s stress – they were pretty worn out and freaked out by the time we rolled into home at 1 a.m.
Karl and I were The Enemy the first four or five days. Back scratches won over Hilma and Albin, but Pippi remains convinced that we are not to be trusted. To her, we’re worse than the dogs, and she really can’t stand the dogs.
I’m trying hard to win her over. I sit outside and read The Great Gatsby to them while Hilma and Albin walk all over me. They mostly want to be scratched, but they do seem to listen to the story and think the book itself is fascinating. Pages – turning! They’re going to be well-read ruminants.
It took us a few days to decide how to get them outside. Our first thought was that getting them accustomed to walking on a lead was a good idea, a necessary skill for us and for them. The problem is they don’t like to walk on a lead and they really hate being caught. Too stressful all around. Then, we closed the barn and let them run to the door, which now opens into their outside pen. Happier sheep, happier people. Hilma looked at us as if to say, “Why in the world did it take you so long to figure this out?”
She figures there are upsides and downsides to having dunces for people. I’m pretty much a sucker for whatever she wants, but she has to tolerate my clumsiness while I learn more about sheep keeping.
It’s hard taking on a new species, even if you prepare yourself reasonably well. Karl and I joined the Maine Sheep Breeders Association and have enrolled in the University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s educational program for emerging sheep entrepreneurs. It gives us access to classes and we take field trips to farms in the area. It’s an invaluable resource and we’ve made great connections with people who are already fielding our many amateur-owner questions.
It takes a while to get used to their behavior, their quirks, them in general. Not an easy task all around, but so far it’s been rewarding, even if I have developed an ulcer from worrying over them.
We’ve made friends with two-thirds of them and they seem content here – definitely cooler than they were in the mid-Atlantic. All in all, they’re riotously fun to be around and I get a kick out of their tolerance for my literary obsessions. If they keep humoring me, we’ll have to break out “Beowulf” next week.