The Perils of Sheep Fever

E.O. Schaub

It all seemed so harmless, a few years ago, when my cousin Gretchen was given a few sheep for free. She then proceeded to cultivate what she describes as a most decidedly un-free hobby, and began writing a blog about her experiences. We would visit, the kids would pet the sheep, the sheep would look at us with dewy eyes- and then we would leave. No big deal.

Then, last year, my dear friends Katrina, Sue and Dan collectively purchased a small flock of Icelandic sheep with fleeces so gorgeous they verged on the obscene. (Note: being an obsessive knitter and fledgling spinner myself, I am helplessly drawn to fiber like a moth to flame.) Katrina began emailing me pictures of adorable furry sheep faces and talking about her favorite ewes in the rapturous tones usually reserved for newborn babies and kittens.

Then, this past September, I made a fateful trip to the Shetland Islands. Owning sheep in the Shetlands is kind of like having oatmeal in your cupboard- it’s really, you know, not such a big deal. And because Shetland sheep are ridiculously hearty and have no natural predators on the islands, not to mention the fact that farmers are given a subsidy from the government for every sheep they own, the darn things are everywhere, dotting the verdant landscape like so many grains of rice on an endless perfect putting green.

So increasingly I feel like I’ve been on a crash course in the ovine arts. My love for animals and knitting, coupled with the fact that we just happen to have a couple dozen unused pasture acres surrounding our house… (Did I mention that our property used to be a sheep farm many moons ago? No?) Well, let’s just say I’ve been having… thoughts.

And then this happened: I found out that Smokey House, a local farm program for at-risk youth, is sadly being suspended. Consequently, all the animals- including several dozen sheep- were being sold for a song. (And not even a very good song- you could probably get “Sassy” the pissed-off Llama for an off-key rendition of “Row Row Row Your Boat.”) My friend Randy called up just as he was heading off to pick up some very, very cheap sheep.

“This price is just too incredible to pass up!” he exclaimed, “They won’t be there long! I’m going to go tag some this morning.” Then adding, “ I can transport some for you if you like.”

This was a very kind and gracious offer, to which I had only one response:


The fact is, I have a really bad case of sheep fever, and its only getting worse. It’s starting to seem like everybody is getting sheep but me. If I read one more blog from Gretchen or one more sheep-centric message from Katrina, I may just have to join Ruminant Mammals Anonymous. Sure, I had been over to see the sheep at Smokey House, and they were indeed adorable and wooly and altogether sheepy. And at $20 a head, certainly, the price was right. Heck, I could probably fit one or two in my mini-van right now, couldn’t I?

BUT- I kept reminding myself, after dumping a bucket of cold water over my head, Randy plans to use these sheep for lambs, and by lambs, I mean meat. For me, the knitter/spinner/fiber freak, only a fleece sheep will do, and like most fiber freaks I’ve gotten rather unbearably snobbish on the subject. “OOOOoooooh, you mean they aren’t pure bred?” I said gazing down at the cheepy sheepies through my opera glasses, “Oh DEAR.” Yes, my sheep, should we ever end up getting some, will be fluent in several languages and will all have gone to Harvard.

The other fact is, I’m scared. Okay, we’ve had cats, we’ve had dogs, and most recently we’ve even dabbled in some “gateway” livestock in the form of chickens. I adore the pastoral ideal of a flock of sheep, and can picture them clear as day grazing on our back field like a picture postcard. It makes me oddly happy just to think about it… But. Will the reality be too much for little “can you open this olive jar for me?” me?

Let me give you a for instance. The other day I helped my friends to worm their Icelandic flock, which involves corralling each animal, prying open their mouth and squirting some liquid into it, while they attempt to show their deep appreciation for this care by spitting as much of the liquid back out as possible. When I say I helped, I mean I demonstrated how effective I was at getting flipped on my tookas by one of the smaller sheep who thought running away was a much better idea than taking her worm treatment. Ow.

Besides having my brains rattled and my ego bruised, it subsequently occurred to me that despite how much I love animals and fiber and yadda yadda yadda, this is not something I’m going to be good at right away– which I hate. It’s not one of my more admirable traits, but there it is: I despise— no, make that deeply resent— learning curves, almost as if they were exclusively invented for my own personal annoyance.

Also, and just as importantly, I have this funny thing I like to call a “writing career” or my own flailing attempt at one anyway, and having only just recently gotten the kids packed off to a simultaneous school schedule that involves Free Time For Mommy Every Single Day For The First Time In Ten Years… the thought does occur to me to pause and consider whether I should take this time to, you know, follow my writing dream and all that crap, rather than taking this time to muck out the sheep stalls- and all that crap. So hmmmm.

And then I think about the time that, years ago when I was in college, a good friend asked me what I wanted to be- if I could be, you know, a-n-y-thing? No judgements, no parental expectations, no financial worries. For some completely inexplicable reason I replied: “A sheep farmer.” At this time I did not live in the country; I had yet to learn to knit; I knew nothing about sheep. Ever since I have wondered where the heck that answer came from, and why.

Who knows. Maybe it means nothing. Maybe things only mean something when we look back on them and imbue them with our own desired implication. Maybe “sheep farmer” was a metaphor simply for a less competitive and stressful existence than I was experiencing in college at that time. But then again… Then again…

So, to sum up: I’m a fiber snob and a rampant breed discriminator, with an acute case of sheep fever which likely will pass, but may, in fact, be fated by the Gods, my twenty-one year-old self, or, perhaps, a message in a fortune cookie I have yet to open. I’m afraid of getting what I want, which is apparently to herd sheep while writing or vice versa. This sounds fairly acrobatic, but then again I did do a pretty neat little field somersault. And you know what? Opening olive jars isn’t everything.

4 thoughts on “The Perils of Sheep Fever

  1. Eve, enjoy your time during the day writing, baking, watching the chickens, having lunch with hubby, etc. without someone saying, “I need you now mommy!”

    Be careful of ‘keeping up with the Jones’! Sometimes you can get lost and forget what you really would like. Go visit your friends and enjoy, then come home and relax.

  2. Eve,

    Just get the sheep and be done with it. They will cost more than buying yarn when you include fencing, feeding them all winter, shearing expenses, vet bills and getting your fleece processed but it’ll be a good time, and I’ll teach you how to trim their feet.

  3. I knew it was hereditary, but I thought it was from the OTHER side of the family!

    I am convinced that some of us do have this primal urge to raise farm animals, and in particular, sheep. I researched, meditated, read and ruminated on it for years. Then one day, I took the plunge. The yearning for usable yarn was put on the back burner for a good 3 years, while I learned how to care for the flock. Do what feels best for you – but in the meantime, you are welcome to come to Camp Sheep at any time. There is always something to do …

  4. I love your stories, Eve. I can hear your voice so plainly through the words. Whatever you do, don’t give up on your writing career. I’m sure Steve knows of some gadget that would let you write with one hand, or no hands, and herd sheep with another.

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