Farmville’s Sheep 2.0 they are not: Philipsburg Manor’s retro ruminants

Published:

Thursday, 4/19/2012 5:16pm

What comes to mind when you think of sheep? Your favorite wool sweater? A hunk of Manchego? A counting game for insomniacs? Even if your closest sheep encounter is by way of a mattress commercial, you could probably paint the quintessential sheep: a creature straight from Farmville with round eyes, toothpick legs, and a fluffy white bodysuit. However, contrary to their reputation as conformists, sheep are anything but uniform.

In fact, the current global sheep population is comprised of more than 1,000 breeds, with 40 in the U.S. alone. These modern specimens, which we refer to as Sheep 2.0, are the result of more than 200 years of careful trait selection and breeding. Today, there’s a sheep for every fancy. Want a strong ewe that produces rich, creamy milk? Try a Belgium Milk Sheep. Prefer a fine-fibered animal famous for its merino wool? Try a Rambouillet.

At Philipsburg Manor, our 18th-century northern plantation, our sheep’s specialties can be summed up in two words: wool and mutton. But you won’t find any “mod” sheep in our flock! That’s because our sheep are heritage breeds, selected to represent the livestock that roamed the manor in 1750. What greets you on our farm are Sheep 1.0—ewes and lambs that, while no less cute, more closely resemble the sheep tended by early American settlers. 

How did we get this vintage flock? Since the 1980s, our team at Philipsburg Manor has been cross-breeding Wiltshire Horn and Dorset Horn sheep. Both breeds originated in England at the turn of the 19th century. Wiltshires are hardy animals that produce good meat but a modest amount of wool, while Dorsets have thick, fleecy coats that produce strong fibers of medium length. Together, they produce the Wiltshire-Dorset cross, which resembles the typical colonial American sheep.

Why return to Sheep 1.0 at all? For us, it’s about education. The sheep at Philipsburg Manor serve as examples of what early American farmers had to work with. Unlike modern wool sheep, which can yield 15-20 pounds of wool apiece, the sheep of George Washington’s day yielded a mere three pounds of wool. Watching a Wiltshire-Dorset being shorn at Sheep-to-Shawl gives an accurate impression of how much—or, rather, how little—wool an 18th-century farmer could expect to get.

In addition to giving wool and meat, our heritage sheep play a key role in the site’s interpretation. They connect visitors to the past and preserve a rare historical breed for the future—and never fail to entertain! After all, have you seen anything cuter than a flock of frolicking lambs? Join the fun at Sheep-to-Shawl this weekend! 
 

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