Our Adopted Sheep

In December of 2011, Phyllis adopted a Coopworth ewe (# 236), a breed that was developed in the 1970s for New Zealand’s grass-fed sheep industry. Caroline and David Owens, the Pennsylvania family behind Owens Farm in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, purchased her from a breeder in West Virginia last year, and she apparently really stood out from the rest of the flock through her friendliness and curiosity. She sheared a gorgeous fleece and ended up having triplets!! She managed to feed them all so well that each is “chunky and vigorous” (which sounds good to a non-farmer), but they were all rams. The Owens hoped she would have some ewes in later seasons to perpetuate her characteristics.

In January of 2012, we had a Name-The-Sheep contest on Facebook. Caroline Owens explained to me that they had bought # 236 and a few other ewes from a well-respected West Virginia Coopworth farm when the breeder suddenly needed to downsize. It happened quickly and during a busy time for the Owens, so they never got around to naming their new acquisitions beyond “the West Virginia ewes.” However, Caroline told me that Coopworth # 236 had distinguished herself from the flock in terms of personality and performance and could really use a name. So, we had a contest on Facebook and invited everyone to give us their best name ideas. Thanks to Lori in Washington State, who won a free copy of Phyllis’s 101 Crochet Tips Kindle book ($9.95 value) and some of the newly-named ewe’s fleece (priceless!), # 236 became known as “Princess Maple Leaf.”

Just when Phyllis was about to announce the winner, she got an email from Caroline saying that they had nearly lost Princess! Sheep, especially pregnant ones, sometimes get “cast”–stuck upside down — and it can kill them! When Caroline went to check on the sheep, it seemed that the flock was doing just fine – everyone was upright and moving about. But as she was heading back to the barn through a woody section of the pasture, Hannah the Border Collie began bouncing around like she smelled sheep. Sure enough, there was Princess, upside down in a ditch, thoroughly stuck. They got her back up on her feet, and, once she got the feeling back in her legs, she was moving around and ate well. A very close call! Caroline also pointed out that this is another good reason to put blankets on the sheep: her beautiful wool was protected from being ground into the mud. So, shearing went well!

In February of that year, an enormous box of sheep fleece showed up on Phyllis’ doorstep! Just as she was wondering why she got all this fleece (in February, of all months!), a letter arrived from Caroline Owens explaining why their farm operation shears in January:

  1. The wool is stronger than in late pregnancy due to the nutritional demands of the growing lambs.
  2. The wool is cleaner because little lambs haven’t been trying to climb on mom.
  3. It’s easier to tell when the sheep is near to lambing time if her wool is trimmed close.
  4. The lamb can feed more easily when he can find the udder, and it’s not hidden by a bunch of wool.
  5. A shorn ewe is more likely to seek shelter in the barn when she’s ready to lamb rather than stay out in bad weather.
  6. Winter shearing helps the family spread out the work load and helps the sheep avoid suffering in an early heat wave.

In March, Phyllis awoke one morning to an email from Caroline Owens, letting her know that, despite another close call, Princess is doing fine and has a new lamb! A routine barn check revealed Princess trying to deliver a lamb, who was not only TWICE as big as average, but had one leg back (“shoulder-locked”). The lamb was otherwise fine, and a bit of twisting and tugging brought her out. Princess instantly bonded to her and had her up and nursing in no time at all. Phyllis also started skirting and washing the fleece in anticipation of learning how to card and spin it. You can read about her washing process on her blog.

In June, Caroline wrote that Princess and her lamb were doing just great. “Baby” had grown to a whopping 60 lbs (compared to the flock average of 40 lbs) because, as a single, she got all the milk and got off to a very good start. She went to “Sheep Camp” recently and is now halter-trained. In the meantime, Princess and the other ewes went out to pasture to regain the weight they lost during lactation. This time of year is a sheep’s summer vacation — they don’t do much except graze, nap, and chew their cud until Fall breeding time.

In early October, Caroline dropped a bombshell — breeding season had arrived on the farm, and Princess found her Prince! Actually, his name was King, a new white Coopworth ram on the farm. An awfully handsome fellow, no? They hoped for a nice set of chunky white twins from this pair.

Here’s Princess looking quite regal herself.

November of 2012 brought a letter from Caroline Owens with some interesting news — it turned out that King did not live up to his name! She explained how a breeding harness is put on the rams and different colored crayons are fastened on the harnesses to monitor breeding activity. A ewe will not return to heat once she is pregnant, so as Caroline says “the worst thing you can observe in the breeding pasture is double colors on your ewes.” So, King was installed with a red crayon and sent out to work with a select group of ewes. Every ewe had a red mark within 16 days. Great! So, they changed King’s crayon to green. Well, one ewe marked green the very next day, and over the next two weeks, all the ewes had marked green. Thankfully, an unrelated ram named Baritone came to the rescue, as did a ram lamb who was saved from market day. Caroline was also able to purchase a new white Coopworth ram named Zeus, and he was turned loose on the three remaining un-bred ewes.

Phyllis also got word that “Roly-Poly Princess” was up to her old tricks again — she had been stuck upside down several times in the last week of November. When a member of the Owens family checks the flock, Princess was one of the three “repeat offenders” someone always has to look for.

But she made it through the January 2013 shearing, and Phyllis received more beautiful yarn (after the carding and spinning experiment of 2012, she asked Caroline to send it to the processing mill, to be made into some chunky weight yarn):

At the beginning of April, Phyllis got word that Princess had triplets! A boy, a boy, and a girl, but it did not go smoothly. Princess had one baby, then somehow got stuck upside down. Fortunately, Caroline was checking the barn at the time and was able to flip her over so she could lick off her lamb. Then, too much time passed without a second lamb. It turns out two more lambs were trying to come out at the same time! Once they got that sorted out, everything was ok.

At the end of April came the sad news that Princess had gone missing and gotten stuck upside down one too many times… Caroline called Phyllis to tell her personally, which was much appreciated. By a stroke of luck, Caroline had gotten pictures of Princess and her babies the day before:

In May 2013, we adopted a new sheep! Coopworth # 217, a two-year-old ewe carrying on the line of Coopworths originally from a well-known breeder in West Virginia. Her grandmother, Honeysuckle, came to the Owens Farm when they first moved to Pennsylvania. Honeysuckle was known for her exceptional fleece and had a ewe (# 140) who also had beautiful white fleece. In the fall of 2011, # 140 was bred with their natural-colored ram Baritone and had twins: a ram lamb and my # 217.

# 217 spent her first year as part of the Owens’ Sheep Camp. She was haltered, led around, given treats, entered into Lamb Races and Hide and Go Sheep, and got to play with lots of children. As a result, she’s really quite friendly and curious about people.

After that cushy first year, she spent the winter with a group of other yearling ewes and rejoined the flock in the spring. She was put out to pasture and got her very first blanket to protect her beautiful fleece.

In July of 2013, Phyllis was out on her balcony and, inspired by her garden, decided to name # 217 “Petunia.” Although petunias are seemingly delicate flowers, they are actually quite hardy and able to withstand the heat while growing strong and beautiful, just like Petunia!

September 2013 brought word of preparations for breeding season. In order to have babies in February and March, the rams and ewes get together in late September. To prepare, the Owens family trims each ewe’s feet, de-worms her, and checks on blanket fit. The rams also get trimmed and de-wormed as well as fertility tested by the vet.

February 2014 brought both good and bad news. Petunia had her first lambs, but it was a terribly hard delivery, with both lambs having to be pulled. The first one didn’t make it, but here she is with her lovely surviving lamb, which she mothered beautifully. The vet said there was no damage to Petunia’s pelvis, so she would be fine for future lambing.

Speaking of future lambing, here’s Mitchell, Petunia spent a great deal of time with him in October 2014. A handsome fellow, right?

In January of 2015, Caroline sent us adoptive families a photo of the naked sheep after shearing!  Poor Petunia is in the bunch because I’ve got her beautiful yarn in my cabinet.

Unfortunately, Petunia did not have a lamb this year, which is understandable after the traumatic assisted delivery she had last year.

In September of 2015, the ewes were in a holding pattern, waiting until October 10th when breeding season officially began.  Petunia was bred with the handsome new ram, Barone.  But despite these efforts, Petunia did not lamb again in 2016, though she produced another bounty of beautiful fleece.

In September of 2016, here’s Petunia in all her glory, enjoying the shaded pastures.

But, March of 2017 brought some sad news.  Petunia once again did not have a lamb, meaning no lambs since 2014 and the very strong likelihood that she will not recover from three years of non-conception.  Caroline then sent good news that Petunia was moved to a popular petting zoo, and Phyllis received a new adopted sheep with a French connection!  # 322 was named Chausette (= sock in French) because her previous adopter, a French translator at the UN, had the singular goal of knitting socks with her wool.  She had the wool dyed to a gorgeous teal and accomplished her mission before returning to France.

Here’s Chausette before and after shearing in January of 2018, and here’s some of her beautiful sock yarn.

In March of 2018, Chausette had twins, sired by good old Mitchell, who has now been retired.  The size and vigor of the babies combined with their lineage has guaranteed that they are definitely on the list as replacement stock.  Chausette also managed to lose her tag, so she is henceforth tagged as 805/322.

In March of 2019, Chausette had one BIG baby girl, 15 lbs!  But, she’s a great mom and both were doing well after the birth.

And, before we knew it, it was shearing time yet again.  Chausette is looking a little grumpy this time, but all went well, and now Phyllis has this amazing wool quilt batting!

Then, Phyllis gets an email from Caroline in March of 2020 that Chausette had decided to add some drama to our lives!  She went into labor in the evening, and she was taken into the barn so they could watch her.  She had been acting a bit off, so Caroline suspected she might need help.  Then Chausette started really pushing, but without results.  Upon examination, they found the real problem:  her cervix had not dialated.  In sheep, this is called ringwomb.  If the cervix opens, any good shepherd can fix almost any problem, but in this situation, they had to call in the wonderful vet, who turned the barn into an operating theatre and pulled out 2 huge lambs.  Like, each 15 lbs when the average is 10!  But, as you can see, mama and her two ram lambs are doing well.

But, all good things must come to an end. September usually is the time for renewal of our sheep adoption, but the Owens Farm has decided to phase out the adoption program during these strange pandemic times. It was such a pleasure receiving almost 10 years’ worth of Caroline’s packages and emails full of news and photos of the sheep and watching the Owens family grow and prosper. Our best wishes go out to them in their newest chapter of farm life!