Our decision to raise Lincoln Longwools morphed from marital miscommunication and broken teen vows. On a sunny spring day in the late 1990s, I agreed to accompany my wife, Kate, to see some sheep on the Oshawa-area farm of the late Glen Glaspell, one of a handful of Lincoln breeders left in Canada. At the end of the visit, I said, “Okay,” and Kate excitedly whipped out the cheque book to purchase a ram and two ewes. Later, I sheepishly explained that “Okay” meant, “We’ve seen the sheep, let’s go home.”
My first teen vow was to leave the farm forever and live in urban bliss. That ended with marriage and the move back to the 200-acre family farm near Yarker. The adventure started with renovating a stone farm house, Kate growing heirloom vegetables, raising chickens, and spinning wool. Next, was enforcing a ban on agricultural chemicals for the fields leased by a local farmer. The long process of cleaning the soil had begun with some patches of ground needing seven years for grass to return.
My second teen vow was to never bale another piece of hay as an adult. For many years, I was quite content creating a garden with Kate. That changed when Kate studied literature from Rare Breeds Canada and developed a focus on Lincoln Longwool sheep. We now own a few of the 30 Lincoln breeding ewes registered today in Canada. Like 90 percent of the animal farm breeds that once roamed Canada’s farms a few years ago, the Lincoln Longwool sheep is on the verge of disappearing despite its roots that go back to the first century Roman occupation of England. As I like to tell my parish priest, “These are the sheep Jesus was talking about!” Some teen vows were meant to be broken.
We have always been committed to eco-friendly farming practices that allow wildlife to co-exist with farm animals. Thick windbreaks shelter deer, wild turkeys and song birds while page wire fences and a guard llama keep coyotes out of the pasture. Sheep are moved daily to fresh pasture on a 30-day rotation schedule that encourages grass to develop deep roots to nourish the soil and discourages many internal parasites whose eggs are dumped on the pasture and allowed to die rather than be re-ingested after a few days. When the need for synthetic de-wormers is eliminated, sheep parasites don’t have a chance to become resistant. Our talented neighbour, Owen Storey, built a mobile shelter, called the “sheep-mobile”, that offers shade from the sun and shelter from the rain.
Next in the pasture rotation are cattle, happy to eat grasses near sheep feces or too coarse for the Lincoln appetite. Finally, here come the egg-laying chickens who serve as the clean-up crew and natural manure spreader, happily scratching sheep and cow pies in the endless search for insects to supplement their diet. Luckily, they live in a “chicken-mobile” and portable pen, also built by Owen Storey. Have we said that every not-so-handy farmer needs a neighbour like him?
The strict diet of grass three seasons a year and hay during winter is healthier for ruminants such as sheep. They have special bacteria in their rumen that digest the cellulose of grass, allowing them to benefit from the plant’s nutrients. However, ruminants experience difficulty in absorbing nutrients from grass when introduced to grains that changes the acidity level of the rumen. Grain can also cause fatal bacterial imbalances in the digestive tract (clostridia infection) and urinary calculi in rams. Grass-fed lambs produce lean meat whose fat contains Omega 3 fatty acids that are healthy for humans and easily metabolized. When grain is given to fatten up lambs quickly prior to slaughter, their fat contains a larger proportion of Omega 6 fatty acids that clog arteries and are associated with heart disease.
Shearing is twice a year, usually in the spring and fall with most of the fleece sent off-site for processing while some is kept on the farm for hand-spinning. Wool and looms dominate the upper floor of our house to serve as the idea hub of the farm. Kate's active membership in the local spinners and weavers guild has enhanced the focus of producing local from raw wool to a beautiful, final creation.