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Sheep on the Isles of Shoals


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.


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Sunday, February 18, 2018 
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