By Barbara Parry
Photos by Ben Barnhart
A sheep farm blanketed in white is a quintessential New England winter landscape. Somnolent and picturesque, this façade is somewhat deceptive; it belies many hours of exertion and elbow grease behind the scenes to keep things humming when the thermometer hovers below freezing and the north wind rocks the rafters of the barn. Wintering the wool flock is a matter of muscle. Lugging hay, banging ice from buckets, shoveling snow from the lanes and barnyard are all part of the season’s calisthenics that keep the sheep hale and hardy (and help keep us in good shape). Fortified with snow shovels, a thermos of steamy latte, and dressed in our warmest woolen regalia, we battle the elements to maintain flock and fleece throughout the rigors of New England winter.
The travail really begins in September when we start making ready, stocking the sheep’s winter pantry with some 2,000 square bales, roughly 80,000 pounds, give or take. Each bale represents one sheep’s weekly diet; each wagon holds just over a hundred bales. The seemingly Herculean feat of collecting them one by one in the field, and stacking and stowing them away in the hayloft to feed our flock in the cold months to come, is one of the most dreaded yet most crucial tasks in the year. This stockpile must see us through until the pastures green in May.
Over the years I’ve become superstitious about the hay cache. Putting up more than I think I’ll need almost always guarantees we’ll come out with bales to spare come April. A sparsely stashed barn nearly always creates regret come Groundhog Day, forcing me to carefully parcel out each flake like gold as I count the days to spring.
Wool waxes as autumn wanes. In what may seem to run counter to logic, sheep actually put on their heaviest fleece from late summer right up through the winter solstice. Some studies suggest wool growth is more significantly affected by the decrease in daylight hours that begins midsummer, rather than by temperature. In any case, before the snow flies, the flock is dressed in its winter apparel: a heavy, dense fleece topped by a nylon or canvas sheep coat to protect the valuable wool blanket from contamination in the close winter confines of the barn. Each fleece represents a year’s work, easily undone by sloppy sheep table manners.
Raising tidy wool is one matter; cultivating sound fleece is another story. Maintaining a hearty fiber flock starts with a close look at body condition before winter rolls in. Monitoring midriffs in late autumn helps me group the flock according to caloric needs. The sheep equivalent of Weight Watchers, keeping fully-fleeced ewes on the thick side of thin is tricky. Working my fingers through the lanolin-rich locks, I palpate the region of back and pelvis like a topographical map, checking for contours that are defined but not knobby. Heavy ewes tend to literally throw their weight around, aggressively shoving thinner ewes aside at the feeder (which only gets them heavier as the season progresses, leading to lambing complications come spring; we call it the snowball effect). And while poor nutrition can cause wool tenderness, excessive protein can actually coarsen fine fiber.
After the first frost, the sheep stretch their legs while gleaning the remnants of pasture. Circling the fields with heads down, they graze intently, sensing their days on grass are numbered. With the first snow, they yard up in the paddocks near the barn. We settle into a winter-feeding ritual, which provides robust upper-body toning for both flock and shepherd. At first light and again at dusk I hoist several squares from the upper loft and toss them down the hay chute. As I shake out fresh flakes of crisp timothy and clover that still smell like summer, the flock lines up, shouldering for space along the feed bunk like Sumo wrestlers. They tear lusty mouthfuls from the slots in the feeder and peer around the barn while chewing, carelessly dropping bits of hay and chaff over the shoulders of their neighbors (thank goodness for those coats). Yearlings hip-check each other like hockey players. The wethers (neutered males raised strictly for fiber) work their pectorals by holding ground against the larger, heavier rams.
Daily snowshoe jaunts help the ewes maintain svelte figures beneath their wooly robes, until late gestation when bellies burgeoning with unborn lambs call for extra calories. A fresh snowfall at the winter solstice allows feeding the flock outdoors on clean ground. Cross-country outings stimulate appetite and alleviate the congestion at the feed bunk and the mess in the barn.
Although they’re reluctant to blaze a trail through fresh powder, a grass-laden toboggan is a tantalizing enticement. I pull the hay sleigh through the pasture, randomly depositing flakes on clean snow, spacing them out as I make my way from the barn at dusk. Once they build momentum, the ewes are unstoppable, like little snowplows carving paths through the chest-deep powder, invigorated by the forced march. As they fan out higgledy-piggledy in groups of threes and fours around the paddock, I scoot back into the barn to inspect the automatic waterer—the frost-free fountain from which they drink all winter—and to bang the ice out of the extra water buckets placed in various pens.
While the flock finishes dinner and looks for second helpings, I add a fresh layer of golden oat straw to the carpet on the barn floor. It wicks moisture and provides a dry, insulating sleeping surface. The sheep pick nearly every last blade of grass from the snow before bedding down for the night. If the wind is still, they’ll bed under the stars in the yard, making sheep-sized impressions in the snow. A cutting wind will send them seeking the protection of the fold.
With the New Year come fresh sheep coats sized extra-large to accommodate the ewes that have grown in wool, girth, and appetite, eagerly awaiting each meal. A portion of grain supplements the demands of their growing lambs, and a few scoops of whole corn provide extra calories for warmth on the coldest nights when the skies are clear and stars illuminate the crystalline landscape. Large and well insulated, they prefer sleeping outdoors. Blizzards drive them back indoors.
Each snowstorm means many hours of plowing farm roads, shoveling out gates, creating snowshoe trails so the sheep can visit their favorite haunt—the apple tree behind the barn. Power outages, not uncommon here with an electric grid that dates back to Thomas Edison, means hauling water in five-gallon jugs from the house, which is powered by a back-up generator. The sheep sense that without us, they’re sunk. Winter has its way of fostering the dependency and drawing even the most reserved members of the flock closer to us.
In the lull between storms, the season has its own quiet rhythm. Morning chores. Evening chores. It’s lovely, really, when we’re not too exhausted to appreciate it. We tend the flock, watch the weather, and occasionally peek beneath the sheep coats to admire the fleeces—while counting down to shearing day.
Barbara Parry is a fiber educator, event organizer & artist, the talent behind Foxfire Fiber and Designs at Springdelle Farm, and the author of the recently published Teach Yourself Visually Hand-Dyeing from Wiley Publishing. Read about her ongoing adventures as a Yarn Farmer in these installments and in her forthcoming book, Adventures in Yarn Farming (Trumpeter Books, Fall 2011):