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Sheep on the Isles of Shoals


Livestock have lived on the rocky islands since the mid-1600s. Their bones are thick in the soil. Sheep once abounded – good to breed, sheer and eat. But they have not been seen for decades, until recently, when Dave and Rosie came to Smuttynose.




Thomas Had a Little Lamb
(a little beef and a little ham)

In the summer of 1846 Thomas Laighton tried sheep farming on Hog Island at the Isles of Shoals. His diary entry for June 19 reads: "Finished shearing, 40 old sheep, 15 lambs." Before that Laighton tried editing a newspaper, started a failed whaling company, served as a NH state representative, and managed a lighthouse. His dream was to restore the fishing industry that flourished on the Shoals two centuries earlier. That never happened.

But one month later Laighton found his true calling. On July 24, 1846 Laighton met with Levi Thaxter, a young Harvard graduate whose father was a wealthy Boston banker. Thaxter and Laighton became partners in a plan to build a restful sanitarium for handicapped visitors 10-miles out to sea from Portsmouth Harbor. They changed the name of the island from Hog to Appledore. The sanitarium idea was dropped in favor of a hotel. So instead of farming sheep, Thomas Laighton banked his future on tourism.

The Appledore Hotel opened in the summer of 1848. Three years later, in 1851, the 27-year old Mr. Thaxter married Laighton’s 16-year old daughter Celia on the porch of the Appledore Hotel as sheep grazed in the distant fields. The marriage of Celia and Levi Thaxter was as rocky as the Shoals themselves, but the home-schooled girl raised at the Isles emerged as one of the nation’s most popular female writers.

They’re baaa-ck!

This summer the sheep have returned to the Shoals on a trial basis. So far there are only two. Dave and Rosalina arrived on Smuttynose last month and surveyed their summer home. They walked cautiously up the rocky entrance from the cove to the expansive lawn on the privately owned island. Dave is a one-year old neutered mutt. Rosie is a yearling Romney twin who will begin breeding next year.

Carrie McKie coaxed the two animals up the terraced lawn by shaking a few kernels of grain in a metal coffee can. The owner of Triple G Farm in York, Maine, McKie has loaned Dave and Rosie to the Smuttynose Stewards, a volunteer group of caretakers. My wife Maryellen and I have been stewards for nearly a decade, but like Thomas Laighton, our primary focus has been accommodating tourists, not sheep. We welcome the conference members who row across Gosport Harbor from Star Island and monitor the vacationing boaters who find their way into Haley’s Cove.

Carrie gave us a brief course in the care and feeding of sheep. Basically, they wander and eat grass, something Smuttynose has in abundance. My summer job is to mow the lawn and weed-whack the primitive trail that meanders over rocks, past seagulls and through bracken and poison ivy to the back end of the 27-acre island. Steward president Laurence Bussey suggested that Rosie and Dave might "help out" by clearing some of the tall grass around the many stone foundations atf what once was a busy island. Today only two houses remain. Neither has electricity or plumbing. Stewards bring their own water, sunscreen and calamine lotion.

Carrie McKie quickly headed to Star Island where her two hogs are joyously consuming leftovers from the Oceanic Hotel in another experimental livestock project. Dave bleated like a lost child for half an hour when she left, then settled into doing what sheep do best.



Livestock at the Isles

Likely before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, the flat rocky Isles of Shoals functioned as a 17thcentury fish factory. European fishermen dried gigantic cod in the sun on wooden racks, then sold the dried fish back home. It was a profitable market. To discourage itinerant fishermen from jumping ship and settling down in the New World, early laws banned the presence of goats and women at the Shoals. In 1647, merchants John and Richard Cutt petitioned the colonial court to prevent a competitor from keeping goats and hogs on Hog Island because they fouled the spring water there and "spoile and destroy much fish." The court upheld the ban on livestock, but allowed women on the islands. The Cutts brothers went on to purchase much of the land that makes up the Portsmouth waterfront.

The name Hog Island, later Appledore, goes back to at least 1635 and is likely derived from the island’s hog-like shape, not from its occupants. As the colonies evolved, livestock became essential to survival on the barren Shoals. According to one early account "flocks and herds, and swine, were numerous upon the Islands". In 1671 butcher Phillip Babb reportedly kept five heads of cattle and seven sheep on Hog. In his survey of the islands in 1799, Rev. Jedidiah Morse reported that the sparse vegetation supported 20-30 cows and 150 sheep. "The sheep raised here are usually killed before winter," Morse added.

Don’t fence me in

I was getting an urge for mutton myself after just 24-hours with Dave and Rosie wandering Smuttynose. Raised as a pet, Dave has a fondness for people and preferred hanging around the 18thcentury Haley Cottage, best known as the logo on bottles of Smuttynose Ale. Rosie hung close to Dave. By the morning of the second day the entrance to the cottage was piled with sheep dung. The picnic table was ringed with it. I shoveled 10-pounds of droppings into a plastic pail, and by evening, there was 10-pounds more.

Sheep, we quickly discovered, don’t mow lawns like a machine from Sears. They eat what tastes best and move on. Goats will eat poison ivy, but sheep are more choosy. Although the stewards are trying to restore the fresh water well on Smuttynose, we still row to Star Island for our few gallons a day, transporting it by hand in heavy plastic containers. Two sheep, it turns out, use as much water each day as two people. And because what goes in, must come out, our labor-saving livestock were adding, not reducing, our chores. But sheep are cute, warm, fuzzy and friendly in an isolated island world.

By evening of day two I had constructed a crude fence that stretched from the edge of Gull Cottage to the cove near the breakwater to Malaga, a tiny island that links to Smuttynose at low tide. The base of my fence was made of three discarded wooden ladders staked to the ground and held together with twine. The fence pickets were hand cut from whatever the island could provide – driftwood, a broken oar, lumber from a defunct outhouse, the spine of an old rowboat – even an ancient clapboard that might once have belonged to Sam Haley’s 1770-era house.

With the help of my 12-year old nephew Andrew, the fence was in place by 7pm. We teased the sheep in with a little grain and blocked off the exit at the rear of the cottage, allowing them full access to a large grassy field. By 7:05 pm, Dave and Rosie were back at the front door of the Haley House. By morning, they had left us a fresh 10-pound surprise.



The Great Sheep Craze

Help arrived on the next boat. By "shear" coincidence, our longtime friend Peter Lamb (his real name) was visiting. Peter used to raise sheep and is a founder and former director of the NH Farm Museum in Milton. Grabbing a few tools and scrap lumber, he patched my makeshift paddock. Rosie and Dave could still find their way onto the main lawn, but for the next two nights, they largely stayed within their assigned space, also a rare shady spot on an island without trees. We left their water and grain in the same place. Sheep are creatures of habit, Peter explained. .

Peter also explained how the arrival of a breed of Spanish sheep changed the face of New England. The "sheep craze," also called "Merino mania" swept the region in the early 1800s. We owe it all, in a way, to Napoleon Bonaparte whose invasion of Spain led to the export of Merino sheep, prized for their rugged nature and thick wool. Because they survived well in rocky terrain, Merino sheep were ideal for New Hampshire and Vermont farmers who cleared acres of pasture land, felled trees, and built most of the stone walls that are iconic features of this region. Even today, the uninhabited bulk of Smuttynose Island is divided up by a series of rocky walls that kept livestock in their place. Thomas Laighton’s sheep experiment in 1846 marks the peak of the sheep craze that burst like a dot-com bubble when the movement expanded westward and the New England market collapsed.

Animal planet

The writings of Celia Thaxter chronicle the shifting balance of the island ecosystem. Among her catalog of birds, sea mosses, fish, vegetables and flowers are tales of domestic animals. Her first vision of the Isles, for example, takes place on tiny White Island where her father Thomas was lighthouse keeper. Even at age five, she later wrote, celia spotted two goats in the darkness watching their boat approaching. Her dun red cow grazed on Seavey when the waters ebbed and wandered back to White Island before each high tide. Celia’s brother Oscar Laighton recalled flocks of sheep among his earliest memories in his own book Ninety Years at the Isles of Shoals (1929).

In her classic work of nonfiction Among the Isles of Shoals (1873) Celia refers to the "bits of swampy ground and little valleys where the turf is short, and the sheep love to browse." In one dramatic memory from her childhood, 16 sheep were lost for a week under a winter snowdrift. When discovered, all but one of the hardy creatures were still alive.

For centuries the cycle of the Shoals was linked to its domestic animals as it was to the sea – lambing in spring, shearing in summer, grazing until fall. The annual pig roast was a highlight of summer’s end well into the 20thcentury. The thin soil of the islands is thick with the bones of goats, sheep and cattle. An early photograph of the Mid-Ocean House on Smuttynose, the earliest hotel on the Shoals, shows a massive cow sitting in the front yard. Horses moved marsh hay to the barns for winter animal feed. Dogs and cats roamed among the cliffs.

But Rosie and Dave will not be eaten at season’s end. They will go back to the mainland by boat, as will the hogs that are currently feasting on Star Island debris. The cycle of island life has changed once again. Only a couple of caretakers brave the island winters any more. Today’s livestock, like the rest of us at the Isles of Shoals, are merely tourists.


Copyright © 2008 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. Robinson is the owner of the popular wed site His latest book is Strawbery Banke: A Seacoast Museum 400 Years in the Making.


Dave & Rosie Arrive on Smuttynose 2008






All photos by J. Dennis Robinson
(c) 2008 


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