07/14/10 — Locals continue special breeds

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Locals continue special breeds

By Aaron Moore
Published in News on July 14, 2010 1:46 PM

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Marissa Linton kisses her heritage breed Coopworth sheep, Adelaine, on her farm in Grantham.

Marisa Linton of Grantham recently entered a contest through the Youth Conservationist Program and was awarded a Coopworth ewe at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival.

The purpose of the Youth Conservationist Program is to help preserve heritage breeds of sheep in the United States, which Miss Linton explained is any breed of sheep that has deep historical roots, is on a watch list because of low numbers or is considered valuable for various genetic traits that make it unique.

For the contest at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, Miss Linton had to write an essay on why she would like to help preserve a heritage breed, and a donor chose her to receive a Coopworth breed based on her essay.

"It's just nice to have a unique breed," Miss Linton said, adding that heritage breeds have a lot of value and productivity.

However, not just anyone is up to the task of handling a heritage sheep breed, according to Carolyn Beasley, who raises heritage breeds herself at Heelside Farm in Four Oaks.

"A lot of people don't want to deal with heritage breeds," she explained. "You have to start young because they're hard to deal with. Some of them are wild."

Beasley said she raises Icelandic sheep breeds on her farm, which were tough to manage until she got them used to farm life.

"It was pretty much survival of the fittest," she said. "We have four left now, and they are very hardy.

"Some people think of farming and they only think of great, big industrial farms," she added, explaining how she dedicates so much of her time to tending her sheep flocks rather than any large-scale operations. "They don't realize a lot of farming happens with small pockets of farmers."

Beasley said she has been a member of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy in previous years in an effort to help the preservation of special heritage livestock breeds like her Icelandic sheep.

"They do great work," she said.

The Conservancy registers special heritage breeds and works to preserve and expand them, Beasley explained, but most efforts are very low-scale with individual farmers and breeders like her or Miss Linton.

Coopworth sheep, like the one Miss Linton received, are not an endangered breed, Beasley explained, but they require preser-vation because they have a special combination of genetic traits that make them valuable.

"I just enjoy having them," Miss Linton said. "This is just a hobby."

In addition to writing her essay, Miss Linton must now breed her new Coopworth ewe with a ram of the same breed, show the breed at a state and county show and either make something out of the sheep's wool or sell the wool to a craftsperson.

Miss Linton said she will not shear the ewe until spring, at which point she will use the wool to knit something using her spinning wheel.

Beasley explained that Coopworth sheep, like many heritage breeds, are known for producing fine wool that many craftspeople prefer when hand-spinning.

Miss Linton also added that Coopworths are a dual-purpose sheep breed that excel in both meat and wool production. They originated in New Zealand.

This is not the first heritage breed Miss Linton will have taken care of, however; her family already owns a flock of the endangered Gulf Coast breed, which she said they received from the Charles B. Aycock birthplace.

The Coopworth ewe Miss Linton received was pregnant at the time, she said, and has since given birth to a ram lamb named Archie.

Miss Linton said she hopes to continue raising her flock in the future, and that she will expand and preserve the Coopworth breed.

Many of the sheep she already owns, she bought and takes care of herself.