Spring Lambs


Preserving genetic diversity one lamb at a time: Manager of Rare Breeds Elaine Shirley talks about the 2009 generation of Leicester Longwools.

Learn more: Rare Breeds


Harmony Hunter: Welcome to the podcast, I'm Harmony Hunter, filling in this week for Lloyd Dobyns. My guest today is Elaine Shirley, manager of rare breeds at Colonial Williamsburg.

Elaine, you have joined us literally straight from the fields, tell us what's happening right now.

Elaine Shirley: Well this is lambing time, generally we lamb from about the middle of March to the middle of May. We're lambing a little late this year because we had a big ox conference last fall, which was extremely cool. It slowed us down getting the rams out to get the ewes pregnant consequently we're late lambing. But things are happening. We've had three ewes lamb and I got a phone call just before I came here and it said, "I think there's a ewe in labor." But she, in fact, was I think just uncomfortable.

Harmony: Tell me about that process. What happens?

Elaine: Well, pretty much they do it all on their own. Luckily, nature has equipped them to pretty much do it on their own. We put them behind Wetherburn's tavern, because we have a little shelter there. One of the things that's important during lambing is making sure that you don't have mis-mothering occur. You don't have the wrong mother getting the wrong lamb. That can happen particularly in ewes that have multiples. We end up with twins about every other time here.

What can happen is, a mother lays down, she pushes, she pushes she pops out a lamb. The lamb starts to get up, she cleans it off, she takes care of it, it's looking for something to eat and walking around yelling and screaming, then she says, "Yikes, the second one is coming!" She lays down to have the second one and some other nosy ewe comes over and says "Ooh! Look, a lamb! I think I have to have this, it's mine!" And she'll con the first lamb into following her away. And she's very happy to have a lamb until she has one of her own, and then she doesn't want the one that she stole. So it's a good idea to kind of be around to keep that from happening, cause then you generally end up with a bottle lamb.

Bottle lambs are wonderful fun, but they're a pain in the neck too. So that's pretty much what happens. They generally do it on their own and we put them in a pen so that we know the moms are making milk in both halves of their udder, we know that the lamb has figured out that there are two halves, because you don't want them nursing just on one side, and we need to make sure that the lamb is healthy and that the mom is healthy, cause lots of things can happen in the birthing process.

Harmony: You guys had a little bit of a tragedy last year with the lambs, what happened?

Elaine: Well it was the adults. Someone who I'm sure thought they were being very nice to the sheep pulled the leaves off of a poisonous tree and fed them to the sheep. I had 14 sheep in there and we lost eight of them. The real shame was, a large portion of what we lost were very young females. This would have been their first time lambing, right now. So I had a lot of years of potential that I lost.

Several of them also were the result of A.I., which is artificial insemination. Because this is a rare breed, one of the big things you want to constantly be thinking about is opening up the gene pool, trying to get as much genetic information out there as you can. So we have genetic information here in the United States, but there's genetic information in Australia and New Zealand and England, which we can bring in frozen, and artificially inseminate the females. So some of those ones who died had been the result of artificial insemination. So they had a lot of genetic interest, a lot of genetic potential. But, we'll come back from it. We'll just keep plugging along.

Harmony: Did that change the way that you approached this year's lambing process?

Elaine: Well there were a number of ewes who I was thinking of selling. They were older ewes. I had a couple who had not lambed for a year or two. The point of them being here is to reproduce, so I typically give them two years, so a couple of them got three years this time. And it seems like most of them actually. One of them lambed just the other day did not lamb last year, and she had only had singles before, and she had a set of twins. So maybe she knew it was time to perform.

Harmony: How many lambs are you expecting this season?

Elaine: Well I put 14 females out with the rams. Ten of them have developed udders, so I've got 10 of them I know are pregnant. So there are four who are a little iffy, but they could lamb really into mid June. So it could still be a while before we see an udder develop on them.

Harmony: How big is this breed around the world?

Elaine: Around the world, there are probably about 3,000 of them, so it's pretty small in numbers when you consider that there are millions and millions of sheep just in this country alone.

Harmony: What makes this breed distinct?

Elaine: Well, there are a lot of different things that make it distinct. It's kind of like looking at dogs and saying, "What makes a German Shepard different from a Chihuahua or what makes a Cocker Spaniel different from an English Spaniel?" There are very subtle differences. Sometimes there are real distinct differences. A couple of the things about this breed are that they're an older breed. They're one of the oldest breeds of sheep around.

So, longevity in the sheep world is a big part of their importance. They also produce a real long, lustrous wool. It's a wool with a real shine to it. A lot of breeds of sheep produce a very dull wool, but they produce a very shiny wool, so that means that when you make a finished garment, it has a sheen to it. It's very, very pretty and very appealing to the eye.

Harmony: How big are the lambs when they're born?

Elaine: They're typically between about six and eight pounds. I have had a lamb who was about 15 pounds. He was a big bruiser. Probably the smallest lamb I've ever had was about four pounds. I don't know that I've had anything smaller than that.

Harmony: So they're like the size of a human baby.

Elaine: Yeah.

Harmony: Like a human baby, what kind of care do they need right after they're born? What does the shepherd have to come in and do, anything?

Elaine: The main thing is when you're lambing in a relatively small area like we do is putting them in a pen with their moms so nobody steals them or no other sheep steals them. I always check to make sure that the mom has milk, and that the milk is coming out.

Harmony: What's going to happen for that lamb in its first year, what is that going to look like?

Elaine: It will be with its mom for about three months or so, still nursing. At about a month, they’ll start to chew their cud. They’ll start to eat grass and be able to regurgitate it. Sheep are ruminants, they have four chambers to their stomach. So they swallow their food whole, and then they regurgitate it later and chew it. That’s a really good way to eat grass.

So the lambs start chewing their cud, and then their moms start to get very tired of them because they’re getting bigger and they come and they butt their moms real hard, and the moms get very tired of being butted. So they start to wean their lambs, we start to feed the lambs grain. At about three months or so, we take the moms and the lambs apart. Then they’re teenagers, and we feed them grain to help them grow. Then the females get pregnant at about a year and a half and have their first lambs at two years, usually.

Harmony: When would they be shorn?

Elaine: The lambs are actually shorn in the summer. So these lambs that are being born now will be shorn in July or August. They have a very nice fleece on them at that point, and there have been modern studies, excuse me, modern studies done to show that lambs that are shorn in the summer grow a little better in that hotter weather, because they’re not carrying as much weight.

Harmony: What do you have to do to prepare for shearing? Do they get a bath?

Elaine: No. Pretty much you have to throw them down, that’s about all the preparation you need for shearing is to get them off their feet. You actually generally don’t want to wash the fleece. The fleece has lanolin in it, which is an oil. The lanolin’s important for the sheep, because it keeps them dry when it rains – so it gives them protection. The other thing is, in the industrial world, lanolin is a byproduct of the woolen industry.

So everything that you have with lanolin in it -- face cream, hand cream, makeup, sunscreens -- all that lanolin comes from sheep. So people shear their sheep in what’s called “in the grease,” in the dirt, so the sheep never get baths. They come in and they get shorn. When that wool is washed, the lanolin will float to the top, because it’s an oil and they skim it off and they clean it and it goes into face creams and makeups. So you generally don’t want to bathe them.

Harmony: What is the importance of this process of keeping this breed alive and letting this birth process play out before the public, for visitors to Colonial Williamsburg?

Elaine: Well I think there are a bunch of important points. First, the birth process. I think it’s real good for people to actually see the birth process. I’m sure I’ve had a few people who’ve said, “Ew, I don’t want to see this,” and leave. But in general people are absolutely fascinated by it. They’ll stand there for hours and watch this, because they don’t see it at home. Today, most kids are born in the hospital. Their little brothers and sisters don’t get to see them born. I hear a lot of parents talking to their kids and saying, “Yeah, when you were born, this happened and that happened.” So, I think it’s kind of good cause they can talk about their kids’ own birth and how things happened.

The reason for keeping the sheep around is multifold. Obviously one of the main reasons we keep them here is because of their historic aspect. This breed of sheep was developed in the 18th century, the same time period we talk about here. George Washington was interested in these sheep, we know he had some of these sheep at Mount Vernon. After George Washington’s death, his step-grandson, George Washington Park Custis, raised these sheep at Arlington House, which is now Arlington Cemetery. And he developed the first American breed of sheep using the Leicester Longwool as the base of it. So, historically, they’re very important.

I think even a bigger importance is that this is part of what makes up sheep. There are hundreds of breeds of sheep, and you know, if we lost Leicester Longwools, we wouldn’t lose sheep, but we’d lose a little bit of genetic material that’s unique. We don’t know what we’re losing with that genetic material. We might be losing the ability to forage on extremely poor forage and still do very well. We might be losing the ability to live through some kind of pandemic. We might be losing the ability to live in a very hot climate, or a very dry climate. To let these breeds die out is really to lose a little bit of genetic information that we may need farther down the road.

No matter where you live in the United States, and even folks around the world, are starting to realize that genetic diversity of livestock that our grandparents and great-grandparents developed for us really needs to be preserved. Look around and find some breeders of rare livestock and promote them. Go to them and buy wool, buy milk, buy meat.

Harmony: Great. Well thanks for coming out today Elaine. Great talking to you.

Elaine: You’re welcome.


  1. What a wonderful person Elaine Shirley is. Thank you Elaine for an update on the spring lambs. Wish I could be there to see them.

    • Bob,

      We agree! Elaine Shirley is one of CW’s treasures: funny, frank, and a real champion of breed preservation. We’re glad you enjoyed hearing from her.

  2. I have visited many times and enjoyed it. Elaine’s podcast was wonderful and very informative. I will look forward to listening to her again.

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