Hog Island sheep are a feral breed that evolved on Hog Island, off the coast of Virginia. Settlers colonized the island in the 1600s and introduced sheep of British descent in the early 1700s. Due to severe weather, the human population abandoned their homes in the 1930s and flocks of sheep were left to survive on the island with minimal human involvement.
The Nature Conservancy purchased Hog Island in the 1970s. By 1980, all the sheep had been rounded up and removed from the island to prevent overgrazing and destruction of the native habitat. A small population of Hog Island sheep remains on the mainland in the care of dedicated breeders and historic living museums.
Hog Island sheep are small, typically weighing 80 to 100 pounds. They may be horned or polled and white or black. Fierce mothering ability, easy lambing and good feed utilization make Hog Island sheep an important breed to focus on preserving for the future.
Jeff and Ginny Adams of Walnut Hill Farm. in Fredericksburg, VA, have been an invaluable asset to the SVF Hog Island preservation effort. They raise several rare breeds of livestock, including American Milking Devon cattle and Tamworth pigs, and they currently manage the largest remaining flock of Hog Island sheep in existence. The Adamses are always looking for new breed stewards to take on a satellite flock of these critically endangered sheep, so please contact them if you are interested in learning more about Hog Island sheep husbandry.
Hog Island Sheep
Two hundred years after their heyday roaming the pastures of our founding fathers, the Hog Island sheep are experiencing a revival in numbers and popularity. Their return from obscurity is due to the demand of living history museums and also to the foresight of industry experts, who hope to preserve the breed’s hardy traits for the benefit of future generations. Though few in number, the Hog Island sheep are making a significant impact on heritage farms. Their breeders agree: It’s a labor of love for a very good cause.
With more than one hundred sheep on their eastern Virginia farm, Ginny and Jeff Adams raise the country’s largest Hog Island flock – nearly one third of the total population. The breed is hearty, survives well on a grass diet, and is popular at farmers’ markets thanks to its tender and flavorful meat. Yet the Adamses’ goal as full-time breeders is to “to keep them in the food chain and in the livestock market.” Ginny also works with a network of spinners and weavers to draw interest to the breed’s wool, the unique qualities of which have carved a niche in the textile market.
To insure the survival of the Hog Island sheep’s most desirable traits, Ginny and Jeff have forged close relationships with historic and educational institutions and to the SVF Foundation in Newport, R.I. SVF Foundation is a heritage farm and research facility that specializes in the long-term preservation of rare breeds’ germplasm. Embryos, semen and genetic material of some of our nation’s most critically endangered domestic breeds are cryogenically frozen, to be unlocked sometime in the future, perhaps even hundreds of years from now.
The Adamses linked up with SVF Foundation via the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, with which both work closely. Jeff, for his part, “works with everyone who is trying to preserve the breed” and its genetic blueprint, lending his rams to other breeders and to educational and living history museums. He works closely with George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate, a living history museum in Virginia, which also maintains Hog Island sheep. “We’re trying to work with everybody,” he says. “We always make sure there’s a [genetic] well to go back to between [the breeders].”
In fact, Ginny and Jeff regard their mission as an altruistic one. Their goal is not to amass the world’s largest herd of Hog Island sheep (although they have already succeeded at that). Their goal is to preserve a breed they have become fiercely attached to. Each lamb, ewe and ram in the flock is an individual, bequeathed with its own name (Saddles the ram, for instance, was named for its markings).
Although Hog Island sheep evolved off the shore of Virginia several hundred years ago and have not ventured far since, travel is now crucial to their survival. Stephanie Dempsey, a breeder who also works with SVF, says that removing small herds to “remote” locations such as her farm in upstate New York and the SVF Foundation in Rhode Island ensures that, should a virus or natural disaster compromise the Adams’ or other Virginia herds, the breed will be safeguarded from extinction.
Stephanie and her husband Charles are relatively new breeders of Hog Island sheep, having fallen for the breed while visiting Mount Vernon in 2008. Two years later, their original herd of three ewes and a lamb has expanded and the family’s love for their animals has grown exponentially. Like Ginny and Jeff Adams, the Dempsey family consider themselves guardians of a unique breed worth perpetuating, if for no other reason than historic appreciation. Charles has launched Facebook and Yahoo fan pages to educate the public about Hog Island sheep, and they too communicate closely with SVF Foundation to contribute to the organization’s preservation efforts.
The Adams’ and the Dempseys’ enthusiasm for the preservation of the Hog Island sheep reflects the growth of a bigger trend: a growing appreciation for small heritage breeds and the history behind their evolution. Slow food movements and the burgeoning market for locally sourced, humanely butchered meats both stand as testament to this as well. The Dempsey children, both active in their 4-H club, have cared for newborn lambs and raised them into adulthood. Their education in animal husbandry (and all the skills and lessons that come with it) is a dynamic, enviable one. As information about our food sources becomes more transparent, awareness and understanding of these breeds – their livelihood, their history, their use in modern society – are more crucial than ever.
While the Hog Island sheep may be fit for both the table and the loom, the Adamses and the Dempseys see greater purpose in conserving the breed: a simple admiration for a hearty, steadfast animal that is not only part of our nation’s history but also a time capsule storing the genetic material of future breeds yet unknown.