“When the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another Heaven and another Earth must pass before such a one can be again.”
— William Beebe
HOG ISLAND, Va. — Perhaps only 200 Hog Island sheep remain in the world.
The sheep are a small and hardy breed that has remained virtually unchanged since the 1600s. They roamed freely on Hog Island, a barrier island off the Virginia coast, until 1974 when the island was purchased by The Nature Conservancy.
A long string of barrier islands south of Assateague Island was once home to a small, but bustling fishing, seafood and tourism industry. Settlers used the islands to graze livestock and the area became a playground for the rich and famous who came to hunt waterfowl, take the sea air and fish the rich waters. Among the famous who came to play was President Grover Cleveland.
But coastal erosion and devastating hurricanes forced the abandonment of the islands, according to Sally Dickinson, education director of the Barrier Islands Center (BIC) in Machipongo, Va.
The BIC is dedicated to preserving the culture and history of the barrier islands people, including the now rare sheep.
By the end of the 1930s, virtually only the sheep and an occasional lifesaving station remained on the barrier islands. Islanders even picked up their homes and had them barged to the mainland, where Hog Island homes can still be seen in places like Willis Wharf, Va.
The small number of remaining Hog Island sheep make the critically endangered breed a kind of living history exhibit at places like Mount Vernon, which prides itself on keeping heritage breeds in an effort to remain historically accurate.
But the sheep are much more than just a quaint reminder of days gone by. Experts say the sheep are a part of our history, a link which winds the clock back all the way to colonial days. They also say the sheep are unique and rare, with a different taste, a different type of wool and even different personalities than modern breeds.
“They provide a snapshot of livestock from the 1700s,” said Jeannette Beranger of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC). “That snapshot, if it’s lost, you can’t get it back.”
The ALBC defines its mission on its website as “ensuring the future of agriculture through the genetic conservation and promotion of endangered breeds of livestock and poultry.”
“It is very important for us to work with these heritage animals. ... We lose track of how we got to where we are today,” said Lisa Pregent, livestock manager at Mount Vernon, which has almost 100 of the sheep.
Sheep like this provide a genetic diversity that could prove valuable in keeping world livestock populations healthy.
“We don’t know what’s special and unique about these guys, but maybe someday something will happen and we will find out,” said Jeff Adams of Walnut Hill Farm in Fredericksburg, Va.
Adams raises about 60 Hog Island sheep as well as another critically endangered heritage breed, American Milking Devon Cows.
Adams and others say that keeping the gene pool as diverse as possible is the best way to keep populations healthy. Beranger compares it to an investor putting all their money into one stock.
“What happens if something crops up and kills 90 percent of something, but they find out that it doesn’t affect heritage breeds at all?” he asked. “There is always something out there that is more resistant.”
Beranger said the ALBC is more interested in preserving genetic diversity than in preserving species.
“Our job is really the genetic conservation of breeds. ... It’s protecting our future.”
She said that some rare animals could largely be recreated through the breeding of other species. That is not the case with the Hog Island sheep, she said.
“What makes Hog Island sheep special is they are from stock colonists on Hog Island would have known and readily recognized in the 1700s ... They were originally put on barrier islands because the colonists did not need to build fences for their livestock — the barrier islands did it for the settlers,” Dickinson said.
“The sheep were allowed to roam the island freely for centuries. Their isolation on the seaside barrier island resulted in a relatively pure strain of sheep — not a lot of other chances for other sheep to mix in with their gene pool,” Dickinson added.
When The Nature Conservancy removed the sheep in 1974, efforts were made to preserve the breed. Some were sent to historical sites like Gunston Hall, the historic home of George Mason (which no longer has a livestock program), and Mount Vernon. Still others were sent to private homes.
The Fingerlakes Woolen Mill in New York has a breeding herd of 14 ewes and works with the ALBC to help preserve the species. The woolen mill uses the sheep for their wool.
Pregent said people have also become interested in wool from the sheep at Mount Vernon.
Adams actively works to seek people willing to take some of the sheep for breeding purposes to help keep the breed alive. He said it’s not always an easy task to sell people on the breed because they are smaller and grow more slowly than standard breeds.
“We’re doing what we can, but there’s only so much you can do,” he said. “None of us does this for the money ... You do this for love.”
“Lord knows it’s a whole lot easier to raise the industry standard,” he said.
Hog Island sheep can be either black, white or a mixture of the two colors. Both males and females can sometimes have horns, something of a rarity in the sheep world.
Pregent said the horns mean that many tourists initially mistake them for goats, especially when the sheep have just been sheared.
Robert Bridges received a flock of three Hog Island sheep from the nearby BIC a few years ago. He now has five sheep, including a new lamb. As a boy, he fished the barrier islands with his father and walked on some of the sheep trails.
His father also planted seed oysters in the area, so he’s long been familiar with the sheep.
As a young man, he worked for a boat builder in Willis Wharf. The boat builder’s son had the job of caring for Sharky, the last Hog Island sheep left in Willis Wharf.
“He had such an underbite that he called him Sharky,” Bridges recalled.
“Supposedly, they are the oldest breed of American sheep,” Bridges said. “It’s part of my heritage. ... I really just love looking and seeing them. They are very soothing to watch. And it’s nice not to have to cut so much grass.”
Bridges said the sheep are more likely to have triplets than other sheep and may be a bit more rambunctious at shearing time. There are stories about the sheep having to be tied down in order to be sheared, he said.
“They don’t really just sit there,” he said.
Beranger said the sheep will actually shed their wool slowly starting in June, making shearing unnecessary. She said a ewe will weigh about 100 pounds, while a ram may reach about 150 pounds.
“They are actually a pretty neat breed,” she said.
Adams said that the meat and wool of a heritage breed like the Hog Island sheep can be vastly different from what you find in the local market. He compared it to a cola, saying that both may be similar, but “if you drink Coke, then Pepsi will not taste the same.”
Pregent said the local food movement, with consumers becoming more aware of where their food comes from, has helped generate more interest in heritage breeds like the Hog Island sheep or the Ossabaw Island hog. The Ossabaw has become very popular and trendy with cooks, she said. “Ten years ago, nobody had heard of them.”
Pregent has been working with the Hog Island sheep for 17 years, and she thinks they may also be a tad smarter than some other breeds.
“They do kind of think before they act,” she said.
Anyone interested in breeding Hog Island sheep can contact Adams at jvadams<\@>verizon.net. For more information on the ALBC, visit www.albc-usa.org. For more information on the BIC, visit www.barrierislandscenter.com