Hog Island Sheep Status: Critical

Overview

Two hundred years ago, a flock of sheep was established on Hog Island, a barrier island off the eastern shore of Virginia. Hog Island sheep evolved to become foragers, showing excellent reproductive ability and hardiness in their harsh environment. They vary in physical appearance; most of the sheep have white fleece, though about twenty percent are colored. Newborn lambs are frequently spotted over the body, but the spots usually disappear as the lambs mature. The face and legs of these sheep can be speckled brown, white, and black, or they can have black faces and legs. Ewes may be horned or polled and rams may have horns or are somewhat polled, with only small scurs on their heads in place of horns.

In the early 20th century, there were hundreds of sheep living on Hog Island. The last of the sheep were removed by the Nature Conservancy in 1978. Because of this breed's resemblance to New World sheep they are popular with living history museums, and the largest flocks can be found here in Piscataway Park and at other historic sites like Mount Vernon and Plymouth Plantation.
Extinction Risk: Critical
Population: 500
Unique Adaptations: Excellent foragers

Why we need them

With a growing world population and a greater strain on the planet's natural resources than ever before, sustainable systems of farming and food production are imperative.

Heritage breeds help to ensure the security of the world's food systems by preserving these genetic traits, and others: disease resistance, survival, fertility, longevity, and maternal instincts.

Hog Island sheep are such excellent foragers that a healthy flock continued to thrive on Hog Island for years after people left to settle on the mainland. They are very self-sufficient and are known for reproductive efficiency and easy lambing. Hog Islands are able to shed their wool each year and their fleece contains a high amount of lanolin to help them dry off quickly in adverse weather conditions.

Here in Piscataway Park, these sheep play a crucial role in the control of invasive plant species. The Foundation's flock helps to clear dangerous vines that threaten to choke out the native trees and shrubs. They are even adapted to eat poison ivy!

What the Accokeek Foundation is doing to help

The Foundation's Heritage Breed Conservation Program has two main goals: increase the population of critical and threatened breeds, and educate students and visitors about the importance of biodiversity in agricultural systems.

The Heritage Breed Conservation Program has produced between 10-20 new Hog Island lambs each year. We hope to double that number over the next few breeding seasons, as we reach out to new farmers and members of the community.

A group of talented volunteers is keeping historic textile skills alive by processing all of the wool produced by the Foundation's Hog Island flock each year. Although short, Hog Islands produce a durable wool that is used to make yarn and clothing items for handcraft enthusiasts in the community.

We also work with small, family-owned farms to encourage the adoption of Heritage Breeds like the Hog Island sheep into their own flocks. It is only with the help of farmers and consumers all over the world that we can bring these breeds back.

How you can help

Donate

Volunteer

Join the Farmhands volunteer crew to assist in the care of the Foundation's Hog Island Sheep (and other critters too!). Visit the website to learn more.

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