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One Woman’s Quest to Document America’s Sheep

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Jennifer Gunn has seen a lot of sheep, a lot of American sheep.

For a little more than a year, Gunn has been traveling the United States and Canada to document the sheep breeds developed in those countries.

During her tour, which she calls The Great Sheep Expedition, Gunn estimates she has journeyed at least 60,000 miles by car, airplane, helicopter and boat.

Gunn spoke about her experiences recently by phone from a coffee shop near Astoria, Oregon, where she had gone to see Polled Dorset sheep, her last breed for the North American leg of the tour.

Gunn embarked on her unusual quest as a sort of career change.

Gunn has served in the Army, worked counter-narcotics as a police officer, and twice worked in Afghanistan in social science and development roles.

While in Kabul, she met her husband, Alex, a Scotsman based in an adjacent compound.

When the couple decided to settle in Madison, Ohio, a small town outside Cleveland, Gunn was tired of violence, and her husband encouraged her to find a new pursuit.

Gunn half-jokingly suggested she become a sheep farmer — she had raised Suffolks in 4-H — and Alex was remarkably open to the idea.

“Whatever you want to do, princess,” Gunn recalls him saying.

As Gunn researched her options, two sheep farmers took her to the bustling New York Sheep and Wool Festival, where she saw that there was a market for sheep fiber.

“I had no idea that world existed,” she said.

Gunn opened a fiber shop in Madison in 2016.

As she worked with fiber artists eager to try different types of fleece, she learned just how many sheep breeds there are in the world — over 1,000.

Most of the common breeds in the United States, such as the Hampshire, were developed in Europe, but 23 were developed in the United States and six in Canada.

Gunn — who by her own admission doesn’t sit still for long — realized tracking down all of these breeds presented a great opportunity to travel.

So she looked up breeders on the internet, roped her son into running the fiber shop, and set off for Canada with Alex.

On her first visit, to enthusiastic Newfoundland sheep breeder Sam Jesso, Gunn realized that the expedition would be more than a search for genetically distinct ungulates.

“It’s not just a sheep in a pasture. It’s a culture. It’s a heritage. It’s tradition,” she said.

That was clear when she visited Jay Begay, a Navajo sheep breeder who learned the work from his grandmother.

Begay is involved in a nonprofit that seeks to interest young people in continuing the tribe’s sheep tradition.

Most of Gunn’s stops were in the West, but she did manage to visit a handful of farmers on the East Coast.

They included Mike Kearney, who raises rare Santa Cruz sheep in York County, Pennsylvania.

This hardy breed, known as a landrace, developed from sheep abandoned on an island off the coast of California.

The Hog Island sheep had a similar origin in Virginia.

“They developed enough on their own that they became their own distinct breed,” Gunn said.

Others, like the Columbia, Targhee and Polypay, are composite breeds, made by deliberately crossing existing breeds.

That’s also how the now-extinct Thribble sheep was created.

An Idaho farmer was trying to make a Targhee cross but managed the breeding poorly.

The sheep lost their unique characteristics and disappeared back into the Targhee breed, Gunn said.

At every stop, Gunn interviewed the shepherd, and took pictures of the sheep and, if willing, the shepherd.

“Mostly we got just the sheep,” she said.

She also took a tissue sample via ear punch, which she submitted to the International Sheep Genomics Consortium in New Zealand.

She also sent fleece samples to the Netherlands, where a researcher is assembling an international database.

The hardest breed to find was the rare Panama sheep. Gunn made three trips to Idaho before she succeeded.

Her most exotic trip was to the Virgin Islands, home of the St. Croix sheep.

She arrived six months after Hurricane Maria to find the University of St. Croix’s sheep station still badly damaged.

The research farm lost 80 sheep when the gales blew them against the fence and suffocated them.

Gunn heard other stories of loss and long odds.

An Idaho rancher told her he had once attempted to rescue his flock from an approaching wildfire.

But the flames were moving too fast, and the man and his workers ending up riding along the fire line shooting the sheep so they wouldn’t suffer.

Even without natural disasters, “raising sheep isn’t easy,” Gunn said. “The little, furry things just up and die for, like, no reason.”

Across the country, sheep breeders cited coyotes and domestic dogs as their biggest problems.

One breeder in Oregon had both of those canines in her area — plus bears, wolves and mountain lions to boot.

In 2012, the most recent Census of Agriculture with data available, the entire U.S. sheep and goat industry was worth $940 million.

That’s puny compared to the multibillion-dollar figures for cattle, pigs and poultry.

American hunger for sheep meat shrank after World War II. Soldiers were fed a lot of poor-quality mutton, and many decided they never wanted it again.

Given all that, Gunn had to ask every breeder about the elephant in the room: Do sheep still matter?

“Everyone said, ‘Of course they’re still relevant because they’re still used so much,’” Gunn said.

Immigrants who like lamb and mutton are breathing new life into the sheep meat market, and wool remains useful as a fabric.

“It keeps you warm, it keeps you cool, and it lasts a long time,” Gunn said.

Now that her North American adventures are winding down, Gunn has been giving presentations about her expedition — at her local library, spinning and weaving guilds, and the annual meeting of the Livestock Conservancy, which promotes rare breeds.

In May, Gunn will be speaking at an international sheep conference in Milan.

Gunn hopes the information she’s gathered will be useful to researchers and prospective sheep producers alike.

The Livestock Conservancy has agreed to house the pictures and videos Gunn has collected.

Gunn’s next steps could include transcribing the interviews, writing a book and expanding the expedition beyond North America.

That’s all dependent on funding.

Gunn’s husband, who still works most of the year in Afghanistan, has been bankrolling The Great Sheep Expedition so far.

“My husband wishes I would find funding soon,” Gunn said.

In addition to learning about North America’s curious and diverse sheep breeds, Gunn said she has gained an appreciation for sheep farmers and the hard work they do.

“It’s really humbling to hear their stories,” she said.

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