Hog Island Sheep

Hog Island Sheep have a unique place in the world. As of the last census there were less than 200 known breeding ewes in the world. These ewes are in the hands of dedicated breeders located mainly in the Mid Atlantic States. The breed itself was native to a barrier island located off Virginia’s eastern shore. The Island was called Hog Island and supported a village until a string of storms in the early 1900’s changed the island to the extent that the villagers left for more favorable conditions. Origins of the original flock are not known; some say the stock was English; others question whether Spanish stock may have been in the mix. There have been reports of a Hampshire Ram being introduced to the flock but the genetic testing does not support the Hampshire ram claim. Genetic testing performed by Dr. Harvey Blackburn with the National Animal Gerplasm Program shows the Hog Island sheeps closest relation is the Scottish Blackface Sheep, but even that is a distant relationship.

The current Hog Island sheep are small as a result of adaptation to the harsh island conditions. In a grass based system a mature ewe weighs around 90 pounds; mature rams weighing 125 to 150 pounds, with a grain diet these numbers do increase by 10-20 pounds.

Longevity as breeding stock is not known, our flock contains contains ewes over 7 years old that are still producing and raising lambs; one ewe obtain from Mount Vernon had a lamb at age 13; whether these are the exception or the rule remains to be seen. Since we have moved to a more island style of breeding (turning all the lambs out with all the ewes) the health of the offspring appears to have improved.

There are a number of interesting traits in the Hog Island breed: they are one of the few feral breeds of sheep; they show little infuences of other breeds in their genetic markers; they thrive well on a grass based diet and are excellent foragers (too much grain can cause issues during lambing). Hog Island Sheep have anything from a single lamb to triplets, fertility appears to be based upon the availability of the forage; good years produce more multiple births. We have not found consistent cases of triplets but our ewes that have twins are apt to do so frequently. The breeding season starts late summer to early fall when the nights turn cool, and ends December/January. The ewes are good mothers, often watching out for other lambs in dangerous situations, banding together to protect the young lambs.

Both males and females can be Horned, polled or have scurs. Their wool color is a mixture of black to a creamy white, with some having pale color variations in the fleeces. The faces and legs can be dark in color like a Suffolk or speckled in shades from a dark brown to a lighter color that is almost a gray.

Fleeces vary greatly in texture; most are of a medium weight and staple length; some have guard hairs, others have a very wiry fleece. We have not noticed a consistency with these traits from mother to offspring. Hog Island Sheep are a fascinating personable sheep with each individual showing a unique personality. We have noticed that the horns can be unique, almost to the point of fingerprints. Some animals have wide open circular horns and others have winged horns. Some horns have a dark stripe that looks almost like a marker was taken to the full length of the horn as it grew. We have also observed that the horn structure of mother/daughter or father/son are very similar in style and pattern.

Here at Walnut Hill Farm we strive to keep the varied genetics of Hog Island Sheep intact as they would have been on the island. We accomplish this by making sure we mix our girls at breeding time, not selecting for any one particular trait.

Hog Island Sheep will flock together when startled yet they will stare down unfamiliar visitors to their domain. We have witnessed rams that take on interlopers with reckless disregard to size difference if they feel the flock it threatened. These occurances have been rare and confined to a ram who is otherwise docile with humans or other members of the flock.

We sell: breeding stock, raw and processed wool, meat and other products to help the Hog Island Sheep continue as a productive breed with it’s own unique place in Agriculture.

In addition we are working with various organizations to further preserve the genetics of these unique sheep: we loaned the SVF Foundation, numerous ewes and rams over a multi-year program to harvest fertile embryos. We worked closely with Sarah Bowley for the duration of the collection period. Additionally Dr. Stephan Wildeus of Virginia State University has collected semem from various rams on numerous occasions. The semem collected by Dr. Wildeus was sent to Dr. Harvey Blackburn at the National Animal Germplasm Program (NAGP) center in Ft Collins, Colorado to preserve embryos and semen for future generations. In addition we work with other breeders to keep the gene pool diverse through management of blood lines

The following data is from The book “The Fleece & Fiber sourcebook” by Deborah Robson & Carol Ekarius

Based upon the fiber samples from our sheep the Micron Count was as follows: white averaged 30.5 (more than half was greater than 30) and Black averaged 22.6 (more than 90% was at or under 30 microns).

This leads to the thought that the white would be suitable for hats, mittens, outerwear sweaters or heavy blankets, the black could be used for next to skin wear due to its finer micron count.

The fleeces are unusually high in lanolin, the high lanolin content would have helped protect the sheep in the weather and harsh island conditions, this also reduces the yield of clean fibers.