Meg: That video makes me want sheep in baaaad way, Mary Jo! :) Puns aside, what have you found to be the most rewarding and most difficult aspect of shepherding a flock in your own backyard?
Mary Jo: Ah, there are so many answers to this question. Lambing is an obvious answer, as it's easily the most rewarding and by far the most difficult. This spring left us with an orphan bottle lamb - Munson - and he surely fits the bill, entering our lives while we struggled, unsuccessfully, to keep from losing his mother. He's become so deeply bonded to us that he's now more like a pet dog than a sheep. But this year, I'm inclined to answer this question with regards to the drought that defined our summer. Our sheep normally spend more than half the year out on pasture, eating the grass and weeds that grow effortlessly, for free. I strategically move them through the couple of acres, enclosed in a portable electric net fence, to let them chew down the grasses just far enough to stimulate their lush regrowth. By the time they've made the first pass through the entire pasture, the grasses have cycled back and the loop continues, unless, of course, the grass doesn't grow back, due to a lack of rain. This was the situation I found myself in this summer. By the beginning of July, I had to locate some hay to buy (a very expensive alternative to feeding them free grass all summer) and worry about the impending shortage of hay to get them through the winter. The basic question of how to feed my sheep consumed me all summer, and I took to watching the sky like a farmer, cursing the dry heat as it burned my pasture to a crisp. The mounting stress and added expense called a lot of this endeavor into question and I found myself wondering more than once what it all was for. Just as we were down to the last bales of hay we had for July, some friends called with an offer to let our sheep graze their back lot, overgrown and not accessible by mower. "YES!" I shrieked, "ABSOLUTELY!" So off they went, and we all heaved a sigh of relief, knowing they'd be fed for a few weeks at least. But an eerie quiet descended on our Acres with them gone; it felt empty here. I visited them every two days to move them to new grass, and we were mutually thrilled to see each other.
A few weeks into this arrangement, I spent the weekend at a Sheep and Wool festival. That weekend was steeped in all things fiber - I took classes each day, and the booths upon booths of gorgeous wool and fiber were tremendous inspiration. But I found myself lingering the most near the sheep barns, strolling through each morning to visit the show sheep, whose baa-ing was the first sound I heard upon waking. It made me tremendously homesick - not for home as it was, but our home with the flock intact, grazing out back. I meandered without realizing where I was headed and found myself in the festival's lambing barn during each break between classes, and I felt that pang of longing for more lambs the way women feel the calling to have another baby. It became abundantly clear that weekend that I wasn't interested in living without sheep, drought or not. Soon after, the flock had finished their contracted work at the friends' lot, and were blissfully reinstated at home. Their first night back was euphoric - we enjoyed one of the last picnic suppers of the season with them milling about in our backyard.
Meg: How is daily life different for a family raising sheep? What do you do to care for them, and in what ways are your children involved?
Mary Jo: The day-to-day of keeping sheep is simple; I'd contend more so than having dogs. Moving the fence or tossing a bale of hay, providing fresh water are about all they need. I was most surprised to learn that they don't need a barn to keep them comfortable through the winter - their wool is more than adequate - but that barns are more for the convenience of the shepherd. There's shearing time, usually during the spring, which also includes some grooming, and lambing time, which is quite involved but for a short duration. We include the kids in small ways wherever we can - Isadora (7 yo) has made it a personal goal to befriend and "train" (whatever that means) each of the sheep personally. She's begun to understand how they think and move, and has become instrumental in helping us get them corralled when needed. The firsthand exposure to the life (and death) process of our sheep emerged as a valuable experiential learning opportunity, and a great asset to us as newly-minted homeschoolers. Errol, a scant month older than Finn (3), seems to have a natural affinity for animals; the careful attention and tenderness he displays towards the sheep, in particular, makes my heart smile.
Meg: Tell us a little more about how you learned to process that amazing fleece - did you learn how to card, spin, and dye before or after you welcomed your sheep?
Mary Jo: Oh, the fiber/sheep learning curve seems steep at times! There is SO. MUCH. to learn, and so many filters to process the information through - i.e. distinguishing "conventional" practices from holistic. The grace of keeping sheep, however, is that the information need not be all in place before getting them. We brought home our four starter ewe lambs and while they contentedly mowed down the grass and casually grew their wool, I steeped myself in books, classes, and local connections to other sheep people. Even after this First Harvest shearing, I took my time deciding what to do with it and how. There's no rush - wool keeps indefinitely if stored properly. It's all been quite experimental, and will continue to be, but this level of learning would not be possible without having the sheep physically here. Fiber festivals like the one I mentioned abound and were the best way for me to learn how to spin and card. There are also many local guilds for spinning and knitting. Ravelry has several boards on keeping sheep as well as in processing the fleece, but many folks utilize small mills to do a lot of the processing, which is also a great option.
Whatever the mode of instruction, from class to guild to youtube tutorial, I have found "fiber people" to be, without exception, exceedingly generous in sharing their knowledge and genuinely devoted to perpetuating their craft. They are among the nicest people I have ever met!
Thank you for sharing your passion and your craft with us, Mary Jo!