No matter how much I pet them, my sheep crave attention. I have several who will stop at nothing for shoulder-scritches, up to and including the yearling ewe from my last blog post who now will try to stand on your chest for attention. Needless to say, but we are training her not to do that.
We have a little over a month of petting to distribute equitably before lambing begins right around the end of February. Already, the ewes are waddling more and standing less eagerly. We are expecting anything from 70-90 lambs in 2021. That’s a whole lot.
PET US NOW!
Not only do my sheep want attention and socialization, but I also do. I’m strongly introverted and happily go several days talking only to Matt. But even I have limits. It would be grand to have some visitors at the farm, socially-distanced of course. The barn is pretty open-air, so having visitors in the barn is at a comparable risk level to two masked, distanced people talking at the park. We also recognize that people NEED interaction of some kind to get through this terrible year. Sanity has value, too.
I want visitors to come because I want you to feel, in person, how wonderful baby lambs are. I want you to watch their spontaneous play, to coo over their snoozing, to sense their curiousity and learn to interact with them on their terms. I want children to develop a fascination with animals just as I did as a child. Nothing makes me sadder than meeting people for whom farm animals are an entirely abstract concept.
That said, news about new, more contagious variants comes out daily. Matt and I are relatively young (42 and 37, respectively), but Matt does have some risk factors for a more serious Covid experience. I am so keen to share our farm with you, but also rather anxious about it.
So I am interested in your thoughts: Should we do FB live lambing streams? Should we offer tours? Should we do both or neither? How would you want to interact with lambs and farms at this difficult time?
I have some entertaining pictures of recent sheep activity. After 45 days in the barn, the ewes express their restlessness with weird stunts.
Activity #1 – Fighting
BFL 129 Amelia and Border Leicester 1736 go head to head, with our resident ram lamb goading them on. Sheep flocks have a hierarchy, and apparently these girls do not agree about where they stand in the pecking order.
FINISH HER! A solid flank shot by Amelia. Luckily, ewes don’t fight to the point of injury, like rams do. These two went back to munching hay and gossiping about each other soon after.
I have to admit that I was laughing the whole time. I am sure this felt very serious to the contenders, but watching chubby, fluffy ewes do battle would amuse anyone. I wonder if this could be a pay per view channel?
And then this happened:
Perhaps you recall a story from last spring, where one of our ewes had quadruplets? The runt died and we gave the ram lamb away to be raised by a friend, but we kept two promising ewes from the set. When a young lady contacted me to ask about keeping some bottle lambs over the summer, I consented. She had tutelage from an experienced shepherd, and handing off some problem children was just what I needed at the time, so I gave her one of the quad girls and another bottle baby. This lamb, #174, came home in the fall. She just loves people, and last week decided that perhaps people would make entertaining climbing walls, too.
So here she is, standing on my thighs and peering me straight in the eye. We will gently train her not to do this, as it’s going to get exponentially less-cute the larger she grows. I love this pretty ewe, but it is not safe to have attack-sheep on premises.
The days here are alternating between grimdark gray and sunny and white. It is a beautiful but bleak season. With the sheep stable and some time to think, I am finally catching up on paperwork and hobbies. I really value this bonding time with the core flock. The ewes are all feeling friendly and loving, so I am bombarded with shoulder-itching requests and loving nudges from my friendly ewes during this time. At other times of the year, the ewes are either preoccupied with parenting or feeling free and feral in the fields. So I gather the sheep petting endorphins when I can while we wait for the coming of lambs in late February.
I’ve started taking a walk each day to try to battle my isolation fatigue.
Typically, I begin by walking north. In a few steps past the end of the driveway, I am off our property and walking on the smooth, damp sand of the road. Throughout my walk, I must listen for approaching cars from either direction. Pedestrians are not that common on our road, and many drivers enjoy the wide, open vista and straightaway in front of our property to rev up and go. If a car comes, I will wave. It pays to be neighborly.
Even though it’s now December, it’s still worth taking a look at what transpires in our fields. Commonly, I see crows and ravens. Chickadees flit around in the short trees. Sometimes, the turkeys make themselves visible as they endlessly search the fields for morsels. Two weeks of rifle season has made the deer scarce, though evidence abounds of them crossing our road daily.
Heading up the hill to our north, I start thinking about finding a good throwing stick. I’ve been visiting the neighbors’ Border Collie daily for nearly a week now, and we’ve developed a bit of a routine. I find something nice and throwable as I approach her territory. I crest the hill and I can often see that she’s in the dooryard near the road.
Our routine starts with her bow, inviting me to play. Her gaze fixes completely and resolutely on the stick. I wing it as far as I can away from the road in a westerly direction. Three years on this road and I know that this particular dog has no regard for the hazard that cars present. She fetches, makes a few chomps on the stick and returns. About one in three times, she doesn’t see where the stick landed and looks at me like I’ve deceived her by faking a throw. I shrug at her and we each go looking for a new stick. When I car comes, I try to hold her attention so she won’t thoughtlessly bolt into traffic. I often walk a little past where she will go, and then return for a second session while I walk by the house southbound. I walk on the wrong side of the road for that second throwing time just to keep her where she belongs. Stick time ends once I pass the far end of the barn on the property where the dog lives. She never passes that point with me.
I was informed of the dog’s name by a neighbor recently, but I can’t recall what it is other than that it is feminine and contains two syllables. She has never allowed me to touch her, nor has she approached me to sniff or inspect. This relationship is purely based on stick provision and throwing, nothing else. She is an older dog, likely older than 12 or so. I do not, strictly speaking, have permission to play with her, but neither have I been asked to stop. I have never been acknowledged in any way by her shy and reclusive owner. Selfishly, I plan to continue this activity because it’s really a highlight of my day, and I think the dog takes pleasure in it, too.
Once I am over the hill and out of the dog zone, I can enjoy the prettiest vista on our whole road. From the top of the hill at the Kirshner Farm facing south, I can see Mount Mansfield, Camel’s Hump, Elmore Mountain at the head of the Worcester Range and Woodbury Mountain. This view always provides beauty and pleasure in any weather.
Heading back towards my house, I usually now pass my own driveway and walk a little south. You’d think I’d just continue north to get more steps in, but the road turns to pavement there, speeds increase and the road winds around a few blind turns that I wouldn’t feel safe on. Plus, the houses are a little closer to the road and I’m not paying social calls. Heading south, I’m patrolling the lands that we manage and paying a quick visit to the quiet cemetery to the south of our property. The St John of the Cross cemetery holds several generations of French and Irish catholic families that lived in the area. The earliest graves seem to date from the mid 1850s and the cemetery is still active. It’s clear that the lives of previous inhabitants were hard and generally short. Most people born in this area in the 1870s and 1880s lived only into their 40s, 50s and 60s. As was common at those times, there are also many graves of infants and young children.
I usually turn around to walk home after the cemetery. Again, the road gets busier and blind-er, and it’s risky enough already to walk on such a fast road that doesn’t have a good shoulder. I’m usually not tired by the time I turn right into the driveway, but I’ve at least stretched my legs and gotten a little fresh air and sunshine in these dreary days. If my walk is late, I will transition directly into caring for the sheep. Chores are minimal and everyone is waiting for the waning and the waxing of the light.
I’ll be the first to admit that we put off fixing the barn for too long. Though we have a wide-ranging array of skills, neither Matt nor I are woodworkers. Wood is a tricky medium – it warps, shrinks, grows and splits. Matt prefers metal, plastic and electronics, and I prefer spreadsheets and graphics.
So the barn went unmended for months as we pondered an approach. Finally, we decided it was time to cough up for outside help. On Saturday, exactly a year after the back of the barn tore in half, friends helped us replace the back and front panels of the barn. Our friend will be back to work on adding some wooden framing to solidify the canvas and reduce flapping, which should extend the life of the front and back panels. But since he is doing this after work, we’ll have to wait a few more days for the barn to be finished.
So an unfinished work-zone barn is the context we had when we saw the weather report calling for snow. A bit of snow at this time of year is commonplace, but when we woke up this morning, it was clear we’d had a proper snowstorm. Strong winds were blowing the falling snow across the landscape and our house was buffetted by whiteout gusts.
Sheep will graze through a good amount of snow, but we don’t want them to struggle to find sustenance under difficult conditions. My first action was to move all three groups to areas with sheltering trees. What a slog – the wind was whipping past, making the fence tough to manage. I struggled to keep my hands warm and the snow was just deep enough to impede my stride. But at last, both the Border Leicesters and the Bluefaced Leicesters had trees to block the prevailing winds.
Then, we opened a bale of hay and transported it to the Borders pasture. We rolled about 1/3 of the bale out and warched the ewes go wild for it. As much as sheep love fresh grass, hay is a desirable “convenience food” when the grass is buried. Soon, all were munching contentedly. We picked up the remaining bale and brought it to the Blues, who dug in with gusto just as their Border friends did. Finally, we went to see the lambs, who are in a far flung field protected from the worst of the winds. The lambs came gamboling down to see us and dug right into the core of the bale.
We have another day of freezing weather and hay feeding before temperatures transition back into the 60s. Hopefully, the barn will be finished soon and the sheep will go into their shelter for the winter months.
I felt grateful for a morning full of sunshine this morning. We’re well past our first frost and we know that snow is right around the corner, so it wasn’t surprising to step out to 35F temperatures and a crisp wind.
I usually get started by filling the water tank in the bucket of the tractor. We recently replaced our old Ford with a New Holland that’s 20 years newer. The Ford had a bumpy ride that irritates my internal scar tissue from past surgeries, so upgrading has really helped my health.
Aboard the tractor, I headed up to check on the BFLs who are in a breeding group pasture on our neighbor’s property. I spot two cyclists who are looking at me, then I see one of our off-duty rams running loose. That’s bad. Very bad. Our off-duty rams are in a horse pasture, and truthfully, they are not far enough from the BFL breeding group. We just didn’t have other options. So when I saw the off-duty ram heading for the ewes, ready to challenge the on-duty ram, I immediately worried that we would have a real ram-fight.
Fortunately, the electric fence succeeded in keeping the rams apart, so I contacted the cyclists. They told me that when they rode by, their cycles spooked the rams, causing Hermie the BFL ram to bust through the fence. They had been trying to keep Sam the Border Leicester ram inbounds while hoping that assistance would arrive. I’m so grateful that they stopped to help instead of leaving the situation.
I had some grain on hand to feed the ewes, so I tried to lure Hermie away from the girls. All amped up and nervous, he spooked at the grain bag sound instead of coming toward me. It was then that I noticed a large gash on his nose from challenging the fence. Poor Hermie! With grain-shaking getting me nowhere, I feed the BFL breeding group. That resulted in them ignoring Hermie, who responded by paying more attention to me. One cyclist returned with a bucket, and I was able to contact Matt for further backup.
It took slow, patient grain-luring to get Hermie back into his field. We were hoping to halter him, but he kept spooking and running in circles, so we concluded that our best hope was to feed out a little more grain in the field and to spray a sanitizing treatment on his wound there. Fortunately, we succeeded with that plan. Hermie now has a bold silver Aluspray blaze, and the fence has some new green stakes supporting the area where the the breakout took place.
It has been a long fall season for me. I haven’t kept up with the blog because I’ve been trying so hard to be nimble with Cloverworks yarn sales opportunities and busy with Bobolink Yarns efforts. It genuinely has been a hard year – I had hoped that this would be our breakout Rhinebeck year. We’ve learned that our yarn sells really well when people can touch it, but that we can’t rely on online sales as a substitute for in-person sales opportunities. That’s a tough realization, for certain.
Two day’s worth of preparation went in to getting 35 lambs shorn in an organized manner, but it was worth the effort for a smooth and pleasant experience.
First, a bit about why we shear lambs in the fall: Last year, we fall-sheared lambs who would be “getting on the truck,” as it were. We ended up shearing a few Border Leicester ewe lambs who, when shorn, ended up having great breed character and structure. So we kept two shorn lambs over the winter among the unshorn “keeper” lambs. We carefully observed the shorn lambs for signs of discomfort, but all of them looked perfectly content and comfortable. By October, they had a good cover of wool and by November, a thick coat of wool covered them to keep them warm. Come spring shearing, the wool from the shorn lambs was picture-perfect and clean. Meanwhile, the unshorn lambs gave damaged fleeces with excessive growth, some of which were too felted to be usable. More importantly, the huge growth of wool disguised the thinness of some ewe lambs. Not what you want to find after a winter of feeding! The BFL over-wintered fleeces were cotted at the tips and challenging to clean and use, as well. So this year, we thought we’d try shearing everyone.
The first step was gathering the materials. We have a shorting chute that uses sheep psychology to gently organize and restrain the sheep. They are inclined to follow the curve and form a single-file line to get through. It’s gentler and less stressful than grabbing each sheep one by one. We used the chute as a “lamb dispenser” for Mary, our shearer. She’d complete one shearing, tidy up, and then we’d raise the gate and the next sheep would be queued up, right there.
Mary shears gently and swiftly. She removes any belly wool first, tidies the bum, and then gets on with the work of shearing all of the usable wool. The first stroke goes up the chest, and then Mary shears the front of the sheep, gradually peeling wool away using gravity. She goes down one side, around the back, and then rolls the sheep to access the other side. We had a few naughty lambs who kicked and put up a fuss – bad lambs! Our little bottle lamb, Sausage McWiggles, kept coming by for extra pets. She sniffed and investigated Mary while Mary was trying to shear other sheep. We did have to dismiss little Sausage.
After shearing, all of the lambs ran off baaing. As soon as they realized they were naked, they invariably got to work grooming and nibbling the little itchies that they’d been unable to address for months.
Once the fleece was off the sheep, it went straight to Donna Druchunas and husband Dom. They removed any dirty or undesirable wool straightaway and packed the fleece up. Sending Donna home with her favorite fleece of the day seemed like little payment for such great work, but that’s what she wanted most.
In prior years, we have used fall-shorn fleece to make roving and extra yarn. This year, with no Sheep and Wool Festivals happening in-person, we are going to sell this wool as raw fleece. It’s been a little while since we’ve offered raw fleece! I think you’re going to love the tiny ringlets of the BFL and the gorgeous crimp of the Border. We have white and natural Border and we have white BFL. We did not have many natural BFL lambs this year and those we had were sold.
What a year for us to have decided to focus on getting more visitors on the farm, eh?
We’ve given a lot of thought to the risk factors in having farm visitors this year. Matt has risk factors, so we know we need to be careful. But that said, visitors will be walking outdoors with masks on in a context where remaining 6 feet or further apart presents no problems. No Covid-positive sheep are yet recorded, so there’s another worry sated!
Our plan involves showing visitors the nearest group of sheep by walking or briefly driving to their location and showing. After that, we also have an outdoor yarnshop set up on our back deck. We’ll be on break from grilling so we can have yarn out for you to enjoy in the open air. This also helps to keep product sanitary from group to group, as ultraviolet rays from the sun(the same ones that cause sunburn) are nature’s own disinfectant!
Enough about the tough stuff – let’s talk about the cool stuff!
We’ll be offering our own yarns as well as our Bobolink Yarns lines. This is your chance to learn a bit more about our new project and sample our three current Bobolink yarns side by side.
We’ll be premiering a new pattern by KnittyMelissa – the Apricity shawl is a gorgeous, charming shawl with a weave pattern along one edge. Originally made from our Greensboro Bend BFL Fingering, it would look amazing in either the BFL or the Derby Line Border Leicester Sport. Let your creativity go wild!
But Wait, There’s More!
Readers of the blog may know that we saw Meadow Moon by Jennifer Steingass and fell in love. We are offering $25 off 9 skeins or more of our Derby Line Border Leicester Sport to encourage folks to follow our lead making their own gorgeous sweater for Fall. I’m not just tooting my own horn when I say that our yarn really suits this pattern. Soft, drapey, easier to handle than the pattern-suggested two strands of laceweight: We don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
Don’t worry – if you aren’t up to a shawl or a sweater, we have some fun kits and patterns for you to peruse. And sale yarn – don’t forget the sale yarn!
So we are confident that we can invite you to enjoy our farm and our view without exchanging aerosols, and we look forward to seeing you!
And if you are not going out right now or would rather shop from home anyhow, internet visits count, too! Just be sure to leave a note or send me an email that you are part of GNYH.
Recently, I wrote about our anxiety about the cancellation of VT Sheep and Wool Festival and Rhinebeck. I’m glad the festivals were cancelled – we simply cannot risk joining each other in crowds during a pandemic.
We’ve spent several weeks reimagining our sales efforts. We can’t rely on folks to come find our yarn, touch it and fall in love, so we need to focus on visuals to really bring the yarn to you. Here’s what we’ve come up with:
For our Derby Line Border Leicester, we went searching for a flattering pattern that’s just right for all of the extra knitting time many of us have working at home. Dozens of patterns later, I fell in love with Meadow Moon from Jennifer Steingass. It’s a simple, modern sweater design that flatters a lot of shapes and sizes. The pattern is highly-rated and clearly written. The pattern is on sale at the moment so now is a great time to nab this cute pattern. You have the whole summer to knit this sweater that will be your go-to sweater all Fall.
With a pattern in mind, I chose my colorways carefully. I would need dark, rich semi-neutrals that would look good in a large colorblock and contrasting light colors to contrast. Of course, you could always choose a light sweater color with a dark contrast, too!
We’ve also created some fun variegated colorways – there’s no rhyme or reason, just ideas that I had and carried out:
For the BFL, I focused on colors for our favorite shawl, the Vermont Maple Shawl from Melissa Beyer, aka KnittyMelissa. This shawl is grand and simply gorgeous. Our soft and drapey BFL yarn compliments the flow of the garment perfectly.
We have several yarns and sets that would be amazing options for this gorgeous shawl.
We just got news that DCSWF, commonly known as Rhinebeck, will be cancelled for 2020. Clearly, this decision makes sense: Dutchess County has a high caseload of Covid-19, and a festival where 60,000 attendees walk around in close quarters could be an invitation for disaster. From a vendor perspective, Rhinebeck is an expensive and time-consuming show to attend. It would have been challenging to attend Rhinebeck in a context of building occupancy limits or limited attendance and still have made the revenue we need to cover expenses. Earlier in June, we were informed that VT Sheep and Wool Festival was also cancelled for 2020. While we have signed up for a few other shows, those were our main events and an important source of revenue .
It’s really hard to envision exactly how we will sell our yarn in a world without fiber festivals. Customers need to feel the yarn. Yarn is a tactile experience . I am convinced that exposure to natural textures makes fibercraft as relaxing and soothing as it is. Moreover, fiber festivals connect our customers to the sheep. At the VT Sheep and Wool Fest, customers would often pet our sheep and then buy the wool the sheep gave, creating a beautiful, complete circuit. If one in one hundred visitors considers raising sheep and a few of those folks follow through, the future of sheepraising is a little more secure.
Both festival directorships are currently planning a digital festival. I very much hope that it will help fibersellers salvage this year. At the same time, I worry that with online shopping as their only option, fiberists and fiberistas will not branch out from familiar vendors and yarns. It’s easy and tempting to stick to old favorites, and reassuring that superwash Merino is as predictable as the sunrise. I hope, though, that our patrons will take a little risk to try something new even when touch is unavailable. It would be a great shame to see smaller self-raised vendors die off.
Just so we’re not leaving on such a glum note, I have two creative solutions to my worries above. One is that we offer samples of our yarn. I’m happy to send you a few yards to touch and knit up so you can touch the yarn before committing to a larger purchase. Second is that I offer simple websites to folks who need a helping hand getting their fiber flock online. I can also advise folks about setting up a webstore and choosing a platform. Get in touch if you are a fiber-seller who needs a little help getting online.
We are relaunching tours here at Cloverworks Farm! We want to share our sheep and our vision of a more sustainable food and textile future with you. Enjoy our beautiful scenery and meet our charming sheep!
We will be offering tours by appointment. Tours will be entirely outdoors. Tours will be socially distanced – visitors will be asked to stay at least 6 feet away from us. Out of state visitors must meet VT quarantine requirements to be eligible to visit. We want to share the farm with you, but we have to keep ourselves safe and healthy for the farm to function.
We get a lot of similar questions from folks about our sheep – Here are all of the questions you’ve been wondering about but haven’t wanted to ask:
How often are sheep shorn?
Some breeds are shorn twice a year, but we shear our adults only once per year in early Spring. We shear early so that the ewes are wool-less at lambing time. That helps us see the ewe’s labor, helps the lambs find the teats, and encourages the ewe to lamb in shelter rather than out in the snow!
Does shearing hurt the sheep?
Shearing is just a haircut. Once in a while, a sheep might get nicked but overall, the sheep always seem relieved of their heavy wool. Mine go straight for fence post and scratch all of their itches that have gone unrelieved for a few months.
Do you spin your own yarn?
With over 100 pounds of wool from our sheep each year, we cannot possibly hand-spin our yarn. Our yarn is locally mill-spun. We offer batts and roving to handspinners who enjoy spinning BFL and Border Leicester wool.
What do all of the sheep terms mean?
Ewe: A female sheep
Ram: An intact male sheep
Wether: A neutered male sheep
Lamb: any sheep under 1 year of age. A 9 month old could weigh 150 pounds and still be a “lamb”
Breedstock: Sheep of high enough quality for breeding. Not every sheep born meets this definition.
Flock: A group of sheep
Herd: A group of goats, cattle, or other non-sheep ruminants
How can you tell sheep from goats?
Most sheep have wool and no goats do, but some sheep have hair that can resemble the coat of a goat. Most easily, goat tails point up and sheep tails point down.
What is wool?
Once upon a time, sheep had dual coats with guard hairs on the outside and insulating wool beneath. Shepherds grew tired of having itchy hairs in their wool garments, so they gradually bred sheep not to have guard hairs any more. Wool is the insulating former-undercoat that sheep grow. It is structurally distinct from hair or fur and shouldn’t be referred to by those terms. Only sheep grow wool – other fiber animals grow fiber such as cashmere and mohair from goats or alpaca and llama from camelids.
I have a few acres that I want mowed – should I get sheep?
Raising sheep is more intensive and complicated than just putting them on a pasture and leaving them there to eat. I recommend sheep for people who are interested in maintaining open land AND who are passionate about animal care and management. Using a lawnmower is less overall work compared to an equivalent number of sheep.
Are we eating baby lambs?
Not really. Sheep are fully mature at one year old. Lambs that go to slaughter are not tiny babies -they are well-grown “adolescents” who weigh over 100 pounds.
What does a “Sheep Year” look like?
In March, our lambs are born. The ewes raise their lambs for three months. At the end of three months, most lambs weigh 50 pounds or more and are ready for independence. Remember, prey animals have to grow up fast in order to be less vulnerable to predation.
Our sheep graze on grass all summer long- we rotate them to new pastures daily. The hunt for tasty grass is mentally stimulating to the sheep and optimizes their nutrition intake, too.
By fall, most lambs weigh more than 100 pounds. We only need one ram for every 20 ewes, so we only keep the very best rams for that job. The rest go in the freezer.
Breeding season also takes place in the Fall. We separate the ewes into breeding groups and send a ram in with each group. This allows us to pure-breed our Border Leicesters and Bluefaced Leicesters for pedigree purposes.
After breeding season, the ewes go into the barn and the rams to their separate shelter area. The sheep eat hay all winter.
Sheep gestation lasts 5 months. Our sheep typically have twins, but can have singles, triplets and even quads. We prefer when they have twins because that ensures that all of the lambs get plenty of milk from their ewe’s two teats. Sometimes, one of the triplets in a set gets less than the others, meaning we have to intervene to feed the weaker lamb.