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Sheep on the Isles of Shoals
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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 SeacoastNH.com. His latest book is Strawbery Banke: A Seacoast Museum 400 Years in the Making.

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