Thursday, February 24, 2011

My Friend the Shepherdess

Today we have a guest blog from Maureen Yencha, a long-time friend and recent adopter of two female sheep. In the nine years we've known her family, our family has been witness to their transformation from rural-ish homelot to an honest farmette. First a large garden, various fruits and fruit trees, somewhere along the line a pond, then chickens... and now sheep. She's so enthusiastic about everything, I asked her to share how she got there....

Fall and Ester near their original shelter

I’m a shepherdess. My flock of two ewes arrived just over three months ago. How did I get here?!?!?!?
Let’s backtrack thirteen years…

July 1998: Mike and I were recently married, and the world was ours. The plan was to move from our
current home on .19 acre to a larger house with some land, and raise our family there.

February 1999: Mike and I took a trip to the beautiful Yorkshire region of England. This was the setting
for James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small novels. The endless rolling green pastures dotted with
sheep were so picturesque. Out of the blue, I decided some wooly sheep on our future property would
be cool. Mike agreed. (Now I understand he hoped it was just a passing phase. It wasn’t.)

May 1999 and 2000: I “discovered” the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival. Who knew there were so
many different kinds and breeds of sheep?!?!? Wool or meat? Isn’t a sheep a sheep?!?!? No!

August 2000: Bought our house on a five-acre lot of land in western Howard County, MD. We spent the
next NINE years fixing up the house and gardens, having babies, nursing babies, potty-training toddlers,

August 2009: It was sometime around now that my friend, Renee, invited me to join a small group of
local women who shared an interest in exploring more natural, sustainable, local options in our lives.
Food choices made up the majority of our monthly “Green Group” discussions… organic, Community
Supported Agriculture (CSA), making cheese, grass-fed beef, pasture-raised chickens… fermented
carrots?!?!?!? What?!?!?! A whole new world opened up to me. With five acres, I could actually DO
some of these things and, ultimately, control my family’s food chain.

October 2009: I decided it was time to make use of our land, or at least a chunk thereof. Enter our
friends Chuck and Nancy Gardetto of Copper Penny Farm in Hanover, MD. They had lots of fun farm
critters on their nine acres… cows, pigs, sheep, goats, turkeys, chickens. After seeing their setup, I knew I
could make my little sheep flock happen on my own little slice of heaven.

August 2010: The Howard County Fair! I was so impressed with the 4-H kids showing their animals
(especially the little ones, who can only “show” a stuffed animal, but will still answer questions from
the judge). The beaming smiles on their faces when they received their 4-H Participation ribbon spoke
volumes! My kids wanted in! I wanted my kids in!

I seriously researched the breed I was interested in (Katahdin, a HAIR breed… not wool) at the Howard
County Fair, and made contacts with local breeders. I found local 4-H clubs for the kids to join. They
were excited at the prospect of having sheep in the front yard.

September 2010: The day I picked out my first sheep. Eric Neilson of Justifiable Acres was one of the
breeders I had spoken to at the county fair. I made the short drive to his farm in Woodbine where I
selected “Fall”, a 2.5 year old ewe that had lambed twice before. I left her to hang out with Charcoal, a
jet-black Katahdin ram, for two cycles so she’d already be bred when she came to her new home.

Speaking of her new home… she had none… just my ideas on paper. My husband had nooooo idea how
drastically requirements creep was coming into play. (Did I mention we had gone through this process
two years earlier when I started my chicken flock? I’ll save that for another story.) My original plan for
two spring lambs contained within an electric fence to be butchered in the fall had evolved into two
year-round breeding ewes with lots of aesthetically-pleasing, sturdy, NICE fencing in which to graze. Yes,
I said TWO ewes… they’re social animals after all. The following week, I went back and my 6-year son,
Michael, picked out 9-month old “Ester”. The night before, we discussed questions to ask the breeder
and what to look for when selecting ewe #2. Michael was so proud of himself, and so was I. I opted not
to breed Ester yet. Eric would deliver the girls in three weeks. Surely we could get fencing up in that
amount of time.

Time for another major decision. Now that we had farm critters, we needed to name our farmette. It
had to be cool with personal meaning. I called upon my original, decade-old inspiration for this ruminant
adventure and decided on “Harrogate West”, after the beautiful spa town nestled in the center of James
Herriot’s beautiful Yorkshire.

October 2010: The week before Fall and Ester were to be delivered, we barely had the holes dug for
the fence. But I had a plan, and we made Home Depot and Lowes very happy with all of our lumber
and hardware purchases. Thank God for Mike’s big Ford F-250! We finished the fence the day the
sheep were to arrive. There was no shelter yet, so I put the kids’ Little Tykes playhouse in the pasture
to provide some protection from the elements. Eric delivered the girls and they promptly headed for
the wooded part of the pasture. The sheep never used the playhouse, and preferred to hang out in the

By the end of the first week, the girls were used to their new home and came running every time they
saw us. They knew we always had a cup of grain to greet them with. I never realized sheep really DO
bounce all four feet off the ground. It was like watching Tigger in a Winnie the Pooh cartoon! Ester
literally SPRANG across the field and again SPRANG circles around Fall. Fall would get playful but wasn’t
nearly as playful as Ester. Perhaps because Fall was older and carrying lambs.

Every day, I’d come home from work and would play with the sheep. I had recently modified (ie.
REDUCED) my work hours, and had a very good work-life balance. I was in a “good place”. I remember
commenting about that when my friend, Renee, came to meet Fall and Ester. Boy, did I jinx myself on
that one…

29 October 2010: I got a call at work telling me that my 84-year old mother was in the hospital and in
very bad shape. My world completely changed in that very brief phone call. Mom immediately became
my #1 priority. I took an extended leave from work and dumped everything else (house, kids, and
critters) on my very supportive husband.

November 2010: For the first two weeks, I pretty much lived at the nursing home Mom was transferred
to. I didn’t see my husband, kids, or critters. I missed them all. Mom was improving and that kept me
going. On the nights I actually came home, I’d sit in a lawn chair in the pasture and feed Fall and Ester
grain by hand. Eventually, Ester let me scratch her behind her ears and under her chin. Fall would just
get a mouthful and step back to chew. That nightly ritual evolved into what I refer to as my “sheep
therapy”. Just sitting out in the field with them helped me to decompress after the stress of the day.
Supportive friends joined me for sheep therapy sessions, so I could vent my worries and frustrations.
Sometimes tea, cocoa, or even wine was present at these sessions. Sometimes cheese and crackers.
Sometimes a big box of Kleenex.

With the weather getting colder, Mike knew I really wanted a shelter for Fall and Ester to get out of the
elements, muchless to provide safety and warmth when Fall lambed. (She was due on 20 February.)
One afternoon I came back from the nursing home to find Mike and his dad had built a wonderful small
barn for the girls. Measuring 8’ x 6’ or so, it was perfect. Mike added a Dutch door, so they could be
contained yet still see out and get plenty of fresh air.

The new shelter

Jauaryn 2011: With Mom’s health crisis, Christmas had been a total blurr. We did manage to get the
sheep their own Christmas stockings though. They are members of our family after all, even if we do
plan to eat their babies.

On that topic… the kids understand the lambs won’t stay past November, and we will eat them.
They’re lobbying to keep one. I don’t know if that will happen. The pasture is very lush and green from
spring through fall. I’m concerned the quality of the pasture may be affected by more sheep. I could
supplement with hay, but that would defeat the purpose of trying to control my food chain.

The kids… Breanne has become quite the responsible shepherdess, providing food and water for the
girls every morning before she has breakfast. Michael takes care of the chickens and collects the eggs.
The youngest, Jaclyn, does whatever she can to help.

February 2011: Currently… With the extremely cold weather and Fall’s lambing date fast approaching,
I’m vigilant about making sure she’s safe and secure in the barn each night. I’ve heard too many horror
stories about ewes lambing in a cold field at night and the lambs freezing. I use grain to lure them to the
barn, but they don’t always want to go in. I learned that if I cut out their afternoon grain snack, the girls
will be hungry enough to come into the barn at nighttime. THEN they get their snack and dinner rations.
Looking at them through the open top of the barn’s Dutch door, and seeing them safe and snug has
become another extension of my sheep therapy. I stay out there or even go back out late at night just to
check on them and give Ester a scratch behind the ears.

Breanne lets the sheep out in the morning when she feeds and waters them. Sometimes getting the
barn door all the way open after the ground freezes is a challenge. Frequently, it opens just wide enough
for Ester to get out, but oh-so pregnant Fall can’t fit through. Ester becomes quite upset and kicks at the
door with her front legs until we open it all the way. If we have to go back to the garage to get a shovel
to hack at the frozen ground, Ester will go back in the barn with Fall. She doesn’t want to be apart from
her “big sister”. She immediately calms down as soon as she’s once again shoulder-to-shoulder with Fall.

As soon as we get the door all the way open, they scamper out and down their self-made trail to the
wooded part of the pasture.

Last minute preparation for the lambs has included installing a baby monitor in the barn so I can hear
Fall when she goes into labor. (She’ll start talking to her lambs before they’re born.) I also installed
a small work light as sheep have poor eyesight and it will make them feel safer. These conveniences
require a LONNNNG extension cord from the house. (Maybe Mike will run electric out to the barn, in his
copious spare time.)

I expect that before this weekend is out, the lambs will be here. What have I gotten myself into?

I’m a shepherdess.


Me again. This post is part of the weekly blogroll at Sustainable Eats, and GNLOWFGLINS, Simple Lives Thursday. Though I'm not convinced the sheep have actually made life for the family simpler! :)  Check out all the other posts for the day. I usually find a few great ones.

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