The Sheep Story

The sheep were brought to Decatur Island by the original settlers back in the 1890’s. The breed was a cross of American Merino, Rambouillet, and later, Suffolk. At some point the settlers turned the sheep loose to care for themselves. Fast forward to 1985, a visitor to Decatur Northwest who was raised with sheep ranching exclaimed that we must do something about the very dirty, smelly sheep. He declared that there were too many (over 200) for the amount of natural feed on the island and that they were in very poor health. He insisted that we must choose one of two actions. Either shoot them all to put them out of their misery or gather them, clean them up and reduce the number in the flock. Our choice was the latter. He put us in touch with a shepherd who, motivated by the unusual challenge, recruited a second shepherd to join him in trying to collect at least some of the flock. The two came in May of 1986 with their five Border Collies. They chased sheep through the woodlands, over the cliffs, and back and forth across sheep hill, for an entire rainy week, finally corralling 157 unwilling sheep. Our farmyard was full.

Shearing day attracted almost the entire community. Spectators filled the barn for the undressing of these very wild sheep. When the shearing of our ewes began we discovered that our sheep were walking skeletons, internally besieged by parasites, and no ewe was older than four years. An Oregon buyer bought all the rams and the most emaciated ewes. He paid $17.50 apiece. We administered Ivamec to all those we kept, and in the lamb room our veterinarian docked tails and castrated males.

We have gathered every year since. Our shepherds advised that the Scottish Blackface breed would be the best breed for the kind of life they live. They must forage for themselves, do their own breeding and lambing and take care of their babies all without help. Our first “Scottie” ram was gifted to Decatur NW by a homeowner’s mother who had been raised with sheep and was herself a spinner and weaver. The ram came from San Juan Island and she named him Ramesses. Thereafter, every ram we have bought is a “Scottie”. Because the Scottish Blackface breed is relatively rare in the Pacific NW we have had to use the same gene pool year over year. We need new blood. A woman was found who, a few years ago, imported Scottish Blackface semen from the United Kingdom. Our newest ram is from that line.

After that first Spring Gather, we sold our lambs and culled ewes at the Marysville livestock auction. We gradually reduced the flock to 60 ewes. That was the perfect number for the island environment, as well as the number that made economic sense. A running dollar-total was kept for ten years. During that time, with fluctuating prices, we were as much as $3,000 to the good and $3,000 in the hole. After ten years, we were $1.37 to the good. Some years later, our San Juan County agent, interested in our operation, came to visit on shearing day. She heartily complimented us on the quality and uniqueness of our operation.

A few years later, some of our residents questioned the value of the sheep and their effect on the environment. A Sheep Committee researched the issue and found many advantages as well as some drawbacks. The board decided to keep the sheep but to reduce the flock to 50 ewes. We knew that we could not make expenses with so few ewes producing lambs to sell. From then on we lost money. In 2005, the Marysville auction house closed. We had to find a new buyer. The next year we made a deal with a young Belgian man who wanted to buy Scottish Blackface sheep. If he paid all of our expenses, he would get all of our lambs and culled ewes. That way we would have no downside risk and could stop losing money. He was selling the lambs to buyers who celebrated Ramadan and paid high prices for the lambs. So we both benefited. He has since returned to Belgium. Now, our shepherd is marketing our sheep. So far the prices have held up and we are trying to return the flock to 60 ewes. Our wool is finding new markets: a furniture maker in Seattle; several fiber artists and an Oregon sheep ranch that makes building insulation out of wool.

Shearing day is always the first Saturday in May and the Fall Gather is usually the first weekend after Labor Day.