CAP CHARLES, Virginia – Hog Island sheep once thrived on an island off the east coast of Virginia, but the breed is in critical condition after settlers abandoned the island’s quicksand.
Matt and Eden Ertle of Island View Farm in Cape Charles are working to change that.
A few miles southwest of Hog Island, a small herd grows on the Ertles family farm.
They use their sheep for Eden Ertle’s felting business, She Seeks Wool, and will be starting a small commercial meat business called Seaside Lamb next year.
Their goal is to increase the numbers of this ancestral breed, famous for both its history and its utilitarian appeal.
“We want to see the numbers of these sheep increase because they are useful,” Eden Ertle said.
Sheep from Hog Island came from British animals brought to Hog Island by settlers in the 1700s.
Surviving on a swamp grass diet, the breed has grown into hardy animals renowned for their durability, foraging ability, and reproductive efficiency.
Weighing no more than 150 pounds on average, Hog Island sheep are small and hardy. Both males and females can have horns and their color ranges from black to white, and everything in between.
Most were born white with patches on their faces and legs, but about 10% are black, Matt Ertle said. The stains disappear as the sheep grow older, giving Hog Island wool a wide range of natural colors.
In their heyday, hundreds of Hog Island sheep roamed the island freely, providing the settlers with wool and meat, without the need to graze their flocks. Some former Islanders even remember their parents keeping sheep as pets, said Matt Ertle.
After a series of severe storms, however, settlers began to flee Hog Island in the 1930s. Some took their sheep with them while others left the herds to fend for themselves until The Nature Conservancy took over. possession of the island and removed the remaining sheep in the 1970s.
The sheep have gone to sites ranging from private homes to historic plantations and living history museums such as Colonial Williamsburg and Mount Vernon.
Bred in isolation for hundreds of years, they are valued not only as a pure historical breed, but also for their ease of maintenance and gentle temperament.
“They’re basically a cut above the wilderness,” said Matt Ertle, “so they’re easy to grow.”
Despite easy upkeep, however, only around 200 sheep remain on Hog Island, he said.
The Livestock Conservancy lists Hog Island sheep as “critical” on its endangered species list, but operations such as Island View Farm are slowly increasing the breed’s numbers.
Located on 5 acres of the east coast waterfront, Island View Farm occupies a landscape similar to the island where the Hog Island sheep originate.
“We are 800 meters from the water. It’s like where they should be, by the sea, ”said Matt Ertle.
Not only does the breed allow for good eating until adulthood – which is unusual in sheep, which generally taste better than lambs – but it provides a range of white, brown, gray and black wool.
“It’s not the best and prettiest,” Eden Ertle said, but “it has a really rustic look. It’s a lot of neat colors that are natural.
Using the wool from their flock, she started a business making felt Christmas tree decorations, nursery calendars and other Hog Island products.
She even paid tribute to her Hog Island sheep with a special ornament: a sheep wearing a Christmas wreath around its neck, which was selected to represent Northampton County on the Governor of Virginia’s Christmas tree this year. .
However, the small flock had been in gestation for a long time, starting as a teenager with Eden Ertle. She started knitting as a hobby and her passion for it only grew when the couple lived in Maryland and attended the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival.
“She would go look at the fiber and I would look at the sheep,” said Matt Ertle.
The Ertle began to think of their own herd, a pipe dream at the time, when they lived in a one-bedroom apartment.
The Ertles moved to the east coast in 2011. Two years later they inherited a small flock of Hog Island and Suffolk sheep from a family friend.
Raising 10 lambs in 2013, their herd grew large enough for them to experiment with a commercial meat business. They experimented with delicacies ranging from grilled mutton and lamb chops to grilled leg of lamb with garlic, rosemary and horseradish, as well as a traditional mutton recipe made from local figs. The couple finally had confidence in the quality of their product.
“Hog Island sheep have a reputation for having a very mild taste, even in old age, which is very unusual,” said Matt Ertle.
He started taking orders for next year’s cuts of lamb over the summer, with nearly 30 customers signing up for a share of the mutton.
The Ertles plan to add three more ewes to their flock this year and will eventually grow large enough to produce around 30 lambs each year, said Matt Ertle.
Meanwhile, Eden Ertle has said she has no shortage of wool to fuel her booming business.
“Nothing goes to waste,” she said.
Island View Farm is part of Virginia’s Eastern Shore Artisan Trail and hosts open houses for visitors on mowing day in the spring, and for homeschooling and other groups upon request.
Learn more about the Hog Island sheep by visiting Island View Farm on Facebook.
Clara Vaughn is a freelance writer on the east coast of Virginia.