York girls breed sheep for shear joy

news@enquirerherald.comJune 27, 2013 

— Georgia and Sarah Garrison don’t know many kids who raise sheep.

But the Garrison girls will be learning all about them this summer – from feeding to shearing and processing their wool.

Georgia, 11, and Sarah, 14, are among a small number of participants in a Youth Conservation Program that enables youths to experience the joys and responsibilities of raising heritage-wool sheep breeds.

The girls, both York County 4-H members, received three heritage-wool sheep through the program in early May and will be training them this summer to show them in fall. The girls also will shear the wool and learn how it’s used.

“I like them because they’re smaller, and I thought they might be easier to handle,” said Georgia, who previously has shown the larger Suffolk and Dorset sheep through her local 4-H group.

Sarah, a student at York Middle School, is the owner of Effie, a Scottish blackface ewe. Georgia, a student at York Intermediate, owns two Shetland lambs: Fyfa, who has white wool, and Vika, who has dark brown wool.

The year-old blackface and Shetland ewes, among other heritage-wool breeds, are smaller and woollier than the Suffolk and Dorset sheep the Garrisons have raised in the past. The larger sheep are raised for both meat and wool.

Effie, recently shorn of her thick coat, “looks like a big cotton ball when she’s got a coat,” said the girls’ mother, Kim Garrison. “The wool is really desirable to spinners.”

Sarah said the girls researched names so the animals would have authentic Scottish names. Although the animals are jumpy and frightened right now, she said, the sisters will work with them over the summer, walking them around the yard with halters each day and handling them to gain control and earn their trust.

Sarah said the girls also will have to be prepared when showing the animals to answer judges’ questions about each sheep’s breed, its diet and other information.

They plan to show them at the York County Livestock Show in September. In the past, the family has shown sheep throughout the Carolinas and in a large 4-H livestock show in Ohio.

Elaine Ashcraft, who coordinates the Youth Conservation Program sponsored by the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, said more than 150 youths nationally have been recipients of sheep through the program. The program started in 1998, she said, with the aim of giving youths a chance to raise a registered ewe of a heritage breed.

The animals are donated by breeders of sheep not common in the United States, Ashcraft said, and some of the breeds are considered endangered or threatened.

The Scottish blackface, she said, is the backbone of the British sheep industry, while the Shetlands have become much more popular in the United States, and as a result the population is recovering.

The Scottish blackface produces a coarse wool, not good for innerwear garments but used for expensive mattress filling, carpets and outer garments such as heavy coats. The Shetlands produce a fine, soft wool, used for hand-spinning garments such as sweaters, Ashcraft said.

Garrison said the conservation program requires the girls to breed the sheep and keep a scrapbook of their experiences, which will be shared with the breeder who donated the sheep.

After the sheep are shorn, she said, they will have the wool carded and processed into roving, the final processing step before yarn. A York friend who spins plans to show the girls how to spin the roving into yarn, Garrison said.

Garrison, mother of five, said the family got involved with sheep several years ago when her oldest daughter, Gabrielle, now, 19, raised them. “She kind of pulled everybody into the project,” she said.

The family has been working with other livestock, including pigs and chickens, since 2005, she said. Sarah and Georgia both have participated in the 4-H poultry project.

Garrison said the girls have learned a lot from raising livestock. “It’s taught them a lot of responsibility, which is what we wanted,” she said. “It’s taught them how nature reacts and how the circle of life is.”

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