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Visitors to Colonial Williamsburg may have found themselves counting sheep this spring, with good reason.
Elaine Shirley, the historic park’s manager of rare breeds, said that this year’s lambing season produced a record 24 lambs. Lambing season ran smoothly, despite a late start and such a large group of lambs, she said.
Shirley explained that each new lamb received an ear tag and a number upon being born. Some also were given names, like Edmund Pendleton. Edmund — named for a Revolutionary War-era attorney— was born with a congenital leg defect and had to be bottle-fed.
For Shirley, another standout memory is of a ewe that birth to twins late one night.
Shirley and another Colonial Williamsburg employee checked on the lambs, then left to change into their street clothes. They returned with a four-wheel utility vehicle, ready to collect the ewe and the lambs and move them to a private pen.
“We came back and there was only one lamb,” Shirley said. “We’re thinking an owl dragged one away or a coyote. And it’s dark, so we did a sweep of the pasture because the (four-wheeler) has lights. We did another sweep, and we could not find the second lamb.”
Finally, they found the missing lamb, fast asleep alongside a fence.
Because they require sheering and extra care during lambing season, Shirley said, the sheep take up a lot more staff time than the other animals at Colonial Williamsburg. “I don’t know that I’d say they’re high maintenance, but they’re certainly medium maintenance,” she added.
Colonial Williamsburg’s flock consists of Leicester Longwools. This rare breed originated in 18th century England and was first imported to Colonial Williamsburg from Tasmania. George Washington kept Leicester Longwools at Mount Vernon. The Livestock Conservancy lists the breed as critically rare.
“We’re doing a service to our ancestors to keep these rare breeds around,” Shirley said. “It’s not just elephants and manatees that are endangered, it’s types of sheep and turkeys and chickens and pigs and horses and donkeys.”
Shirley grew up on a dairy farm in central Maryland. In school, she was active in 4-H — the National Institute of Food and Agriculture of the United States Department of Agriculture’s youth organization. Later on she traveled to New Zealand as an exchange student with a group called Young Farmers. She traveled around the country, living on sheep farms, dairy farms and one strawberry farm.
“I really learned a tremendous amount about sheep while I was there,” Shirley said.
After returning to the United States, she worked at a museum near her parents’ farm. The museum included a farm, a gristmill, and a tannery, all based upon a late 18th century model.
A person Shirley met at the museum moved to a job at Colonial Williamsburg and encouraged Shirley to apply as well. Eventually she did, and she’s been working in Williamsburg for nearly 31 years since.
Shirley enjoys educating the public about the historic park’s animals and encourages people to support rare breeds.
“One of my favorite parts is seeing the light bulb go off over the visitors’ heads in any respect when we’re talking about livestock. That’s why I’m doing this job, so I can educate the public,” she said.
“Tragically, the general public really does not understand farming. And if you go back far enough, everybody’s family was farming,” she added. “Farmers work really, really hard for us, but they’re so removed that people don’t see them and they don’t understand what they do.”
While the public tends to think sheep are “all sweetness and light,” each has its own personality, from gregarious to standoffish, Shirley said.
“They have different personalities, just like people,” she said. “There are the occasional sheep that come along who look at you like they know what you’re saying. Some of them are probably reincarnated sheep farmers or something.”