New Voices in the Flock

Navajo-Churro and Jacob sheepYesterday my friend Barbara and I drove off across the valley on a sheep shopping spree.

Some of you may remember we lost our sweet, handsome ram last fall (November 4, 2007 entry of this blog), so I’ve been looking around for a likely replacement. We came up lambless this year as a result of the loss of Morgan. In a flock that supported a family, this would be reckoned a disaster. In our case, it was a sore disappointment, but we don’t depend on the year’s production to fill our plates.

After an exchange of messages and photographs, and receipt of a fleece sample by mail, I decided to go have a look at Bide A Wee Eldon, a yearling 4-horn Jacob ram who has been waiting to join someone’s breeding line-up. It was handy that Eldon was at Bide A Wee Farm, because I had already decided to buy a pretty ewe from Karen and Doug. With 3 days of dry weather behind us, I was able to extract the stock trailer from the soft pasture. I can carry one sheep in the car, but two would be a puzzle. Especially, as you will see, a ram with horns spreading two feet from his head.

It was a spectacular day for a drive across farm country. We headed west through the hills into the lowlands, passed through the old colony of Aurora where the cemetery is full of Amish family names, traversed the bottom of the Willamette Valley near St. Paul, promising ourselves to come back this way when we are not hauling a trailer and can visit the Heirloom Roses Nursery and the Fragrant Flowers Nursery, and, perhaps, the 2 or 3 vineyards on the way, crossed the Willamette River near Newberg, and headed again into the hills on the west flank of the valley to arrive at Karen Lobb and Doug Montgomery’s wonderful farm full of rare breed sheep.

Here is the ewe flock coming, with impeccable timing, through the gate to the barn where we intended to catch them.

Ewes coming in

You can get an idea of the beautiful open farm country on the west side of the valley. It differs from our east-side fir forests, though if you continue west into the Coast Range, you will find dense forest again. Keep your eye on the ewe on the left side of this photo. That’s Courtney.

But first, you have to see this wonderful yard full of ladies. Click the picture to make it a little bigger.

Bide A Wee ewe flock

The ones with spots are Jacob sheep. The ones without spots are Navajo-Churro sheep. Note that these women have horns, just like the rams.

Well, not just like. The horns of the rams are a larger than those of the ewes. It befits their role as masters of the flocks. Here’s an image of testosterone in action:

Bide A Wee Eldon

This is Bide A Wee Eldon, the yearling ram we came to see (this photo by Karen Lobb).

Now, there are things to look at here. I realize that might sound ridiculous to those of you who have not seen a Jacob ram before. He looks like — what does he look like? Like something from Hagrid’s back yard maybe. But once you know what he should look like, you come to choosing attributes. Though a person goes out seeking the perfect ram to sire their flock, the person always makes compromises. I suppose he is out there somewhere, the perfect ram. But do you imagine anyone would sell him? In the case of Eldon, let’s look, and keep in mind that you buy the whole sheep, not just the legs, or his butt, or the tilt of his  nose… I like to see little black patches on the knees and hocks of Jacob sheep. I think they’re pleasing. Eldon has none. It’s not essential. Interestingly (maybe not to everyone), the British breed standard for Jacob sheep excludes color on the legs. American Jacobs can have leg patches. There are other differences across the Pond, too, but we don’t have to consider those. Eldon has nice face color, but he’s lacking as much pigment on his nose as I like to see. Oh, well. I like his lipstick lips. Eldon seems to have a good temperament. This is important to me. Though I am always wary around a ram, I want to be able to handle him alone if I have to. He needs to be respectful but not timid. He needs to be assertive but not aggressive. We’ve been lucky in the past with our rams. I think Eldon will be OK, too. His horns are pretty good. There is good spacing between them, which is something you want to look for. It’s a lot of stuff to put on one head, and you like to see a skull sufficient to support it all. His side horns sweep clear of his face, which is very good. The asymmetry of the horns is not really a defect, though we don’t want them shooting out in all directions. These horns are strong and good. Eldon has nice straight legs in the back and a good gait. He has two nice jewels in his pocketbook (Barbara was shocked when I reached down and felt of them!). It’s an important aspect of ram-choosing. He was a triplet; the tendency to multiple lambs, twins or triplets, is genetically passed, so it’s good to have stock from animals that are known to come from lines that give multiples. His fleece is what’s called “Down type.” It doesn’t mean like fabric softener. It means a fleece typical of certain breeds from the Downs of Britain. A Downy fleece tends to be tightly springy, not as long as some, but not coarse. In general, I find I choose ewes with longer, lockier fleeces. It’s not always the case that the lamb fleeces will emulate either of the parents, but will sometimes fall somewhere in between. You can’t really predict the result of any pairing. It’s good, I think, to have some variation in the characteristics of the members of the flock.

One of the things about breeding rare or heritage breed livestock is that we are taking care of a diminishing gene pool. The object is not so much to reproduce all the characteristics of a perfect specimen, but to perpetuate the genetic resource that is present in these animals. In my flock, I look for variety. I want them to differ from one another. I want them to be a healthy, robust, various group of sheep. So, let’s see what we can get here. I bought Eldon.

But wait! There’s more!

I had already committed to buy Courtney as well.

Bide A Wee Courtney

This, my friends, is my opinion of a beautiful ewe. Look at that stance. Look at that head and her long-leggedy build. She has a nice ratio of black to white, good face markings, sound horns, and a nice little udder under there (I shocked the audience again by feeling her up). The only thing is, no leg color again. She seems steady and self-composed, too. It’s always nice if they have poise instead of fear. You don’t expect them to know you in the beginning, but it’s really encouraging if they don’t fly from you.

Oh, the voices: sheep do have distinctive voices, just as people do. In a flock they can all sound like so much baa-ing and bellowing but as individuals, they’re clearly different. And, it seems, the rams have the softer, thicker voices. Eldon has a deep, terry-cloth towel kind of voice. The ewes tend to have harsher, brassier calls. Maybe they need that voice to holler up the lambs from the field.

So there is the result of my outing across the farms of the valley. Barbara and I required a cup of coffee on the way home, but were clear on our side of the rift before we found a Starbucks. It was a near thing, whether we’d make it that far.

I love sheep shopping.

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Published in: on June 15, 2008 at 2:11 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Congrats on the new sheep. Oh, those Jacobs are so dramatic!

    This is a really interesting post. It’s harder than it seems to look over a cool, colorful flock and be discriminating. And I appreciate your frank, point by point discussion.

    And even from over here on the other side of the country, I can see that Courtney is gorgeous!

  2. Thanks!

    Y’know, the more I look at Courtney (and I have been feeding my eyes a lot with her), the more she reminds me of that girl who was always in one of my classes at school (might be a different one different years, but there always was one) who could draw all eyes every time she stood still. Courtney has a body grace that she wears like her skin. She stands like a queen. She’s alert and observant and antelope-like. It’s still amazing to me that a flock of sheep can carry such differences within it — they are each an individual. I have one who is delicate, one who is pushy, one who is awkward, one who is shy… and now we have Courtney, who is royal. What fun they are.

    S.


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