Story & photos by Jonathan Wort
The earliest record of sheep in Canada is found in the records of De Mont’s voyage to Acadia (Nova Scotia) in 1604; Champlain established Port Royal the following year. It appears that the Acadians raised sheep from the early days of their presence here. The tradition continues to this day with several Acadian families, such as the d’Eons, d’Entremonts and Boudreaus who have kept sheep for many many generations on islands off the coast of Nova Scotia.
The sheep graze year-round on these islands, feeding on grass in the summer and seaweed in the winter months. It is thought that the early European fishermen who came here to fish for the summer brought sheep with them on their boats and pastured them on the islands, beginning the tradition of raising sheep in this manner.
On the weekend of June 19th, the Purebred Sheep Breeders’ Association of Nova Scotia was hosted by Mary Morse, Leroy d’Entremont and their family for a weekend island sheep tour. The event started with supper on Saturday evening at Le Village historique acadien in Pubnico. The meal featured lobster caught by Leroy. Supper was followed by an informal gathering of sheep producers and local residents, with music provided by several local musicians.
Sunday morning everyone met at a wharf on Shelburne Harbour for the half hour boat ride to McNutt’s Island in the mouth of the harbour. Shelburne Harbour is the third-largest natural harbour in the world.
While on the island, the sheep breeders were treated to coffee breaks and moussaka, prepared with local mutton, for lunch. Ann Yarborough and Greg Brown, the island’s only remaining full-time residents, prepared the treats in their wonderful restored 150-year-old fisherman’s house. Ann and Greg bought the property in 2007, and have become an important part of the island. You can find out more about them from Ann’s blog, Nova Scotia Island Journal or Greg’s book of the same name.
Greg welcomed everyone to their island home by saying that they were very happy with the lawn maintenance crew (sheep) who had been mowing (eating) the grass, and fertilizing it for generations. The only compromise that they have had to make is to maintain the fences around their flower and vegetable gardens.
The first stop on the tour was the sheep pens where Leroy does all his sheep handling, shearing, and sorting. From there we made our way, by various unique modes of transport, to the other side of the 2,000-acre island to the lighthouse where we hoped to see the sheep.
Leroy told us that McNutt Island currently supports a flock of about 90 crossbred North County Cheviot and Scottish Blackface ewes. He breeds these ewes to either a North Country Cheviot or Scottish Blackface ram, in order to retain a crossbred flock. On other islands, such as Blue Island, he has a purebred Scottish Blackface flock. He finds that by maintaining crossbred and purebred flocks on different islands he can breed sheep that are suited to the environmental conditions on the various islands and produce marketable lambs.
The islands vary considerably in size and geography. Some are forested and others are not much more than rock outcrops in the ocean. A critical factor that determines the islands’ suitability for sheep is the amount of seaweed that washes up on the shore in the fall and winter storms. Without this, the sheep would not have enough winter feed.
On McNutt Island the sheep graze the open land along the shore and around the houses or areas where people lived in the past. The interior of the island is thick hardwood and softwood forest. Leroy relies on Border Collies to work his sheep; without them it would be impossible to gather the sheep and work with them.
The sheep have become an important part of the ecology of the island that they graze. Several islands have lost their sheep flocks. When this happens, within a couple of years the islands grow up in an impenetrable web of bushes and raspberries, changing the landscape dramatically. Once this happens even the bird population changes, with shore birds no longer nesting on the islands.
Island sheep flocks used to exist all along the shore of Nova Scotia. But the only flocks that continue to this day are in the southwestern region where fishermen like Leroy continue the tradition of inshore fishing and raising sheep, started by their ancestors in the early 1600’s. Leroy and his fellow island sheep farmers are very proud of this tradition and plan to continue it for many generations to come.
Jonathan Wort works for Agrapoint in Truro, Nova Scotia. He and the rest of the tour group would like to thank Leroy and Mary and their family, and Ann and Greg for sharing their world with the Purebred Sheep Breeders Association of Nova Scotia.