UNITY, Maine – The lambs were only a few days old, but they reared, kicked and suckled their mothers with confidence and only a few wobbles.
They didn’t even seem to care about the people who passed by the Unity College barn to watch the school’s newest and cutest residents play, eat, and nap. When it’s lambing season at Unity College, everyone wants to come visit us. This year the very first triplets were born from one of the sheep, and they were also a big draw for the barn.
âWe have a lot of professors, staff and students who are enthusiastic and want to help out there,â Pamela MacRae, Dean of the School of Biodiversity Conservation, said this week. âAt Unity, we really pride ourselves on experiential learning. We don’t need to go looking for experiences for them from the local farms when we have it here on campus.
The small liberal arts college with a strong focus on sustainability doesn’t have the largest barn or the most number of animals, but the ones they do have are quite interesting. The neighbors next to the lambs in the barn are curious goats from San Clemente Island, a critically endangered breed the college is helping bring back from the brink. Two years ago there were less than 1,000 goats in the world. And the lambs themselves, while not endangered, have a proud Maine pedigree that barn manager Megan Anderson is happy to share.
âSheep were actually named after Mount Katahdin and developed in Maine,â she said. âThe Piel family wanted to develop a sheep that they didn’t have to shear. They wanted an animal that wouldn’t have that job and that garbage, and these guys are strictly for meat. â¦ The Katahdins continue to grow in popularity, and the Katahdin Hairless Sheep Register records thousands of lambs per year. It’s pretty cool that this Maine sheep is becoming a global sensation.
So how was the Katahdin furry sheep born? It all started in the 1950s on a farm in Abbot Village, Piscataquis County, at a time when wool was starting to lose popularity as a clothing fabric. Farmer Michael Piel, an amateur geneticist who moved to Maine after WWII, loved raising cattle and wanted to see if he could raise a meat sheep that didn’t need to be shorn.
Hairy sheep like the Katahdin do not produce wool but rather have a thick winter coat that falls off in summer. There are other breeds of furry sheep, with around 100 million woolless animals in the world. The majority of them live in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and when Piel saw photos of West African furry sheep in a National Geographic magazine in the mid-1950s, he started to learn about the breed. In 1957, he imported three furry sheep to start his breeding project in 1957.
According to Katahdin Hair Sheep International, the breed registration organization based in Fayetteville, Arkansas, Piel wanted to combine the coat and sturdiness of Virgin Island sheep with the rapid growth rate and meat quality of the breeds at oldest boy. He started crossing furry sheep with woolen breeds from Great Britain, and after nearly 20 years crossing the resulting hybrids for his selected traits, he rounded up a flock of 120 of his best sheep and named them Katahdins.
Piel died of a heart attack in 1976 and didn’t live to see the plight of his sheep, which was extraordinary, according to Jim Morgan, a breeder who operates Katahdin Hair Sheep International. In two of the past three years, there have been more Katahdins registered in the United States than any other breed of sheep, he said, and has also been the most popular breed of sheep recorded in Mexico. The Katahdins were exported to Central and South America, the Caribbean, South East Asia and the United Kingdom.
“It is a growing and very active breed,” he said in a telephone interview this week. âIt works very well in many parts of the United States, especially in the east. â¦ He is doing well in the heat and also in the cold. Few breeds of cattle can do well in the southern tip of Florida and also be raised in the Arctic Circle. “
What Piel did in Maine with his sheep breeding program was innovative, Morgan said. One hundred years ago, people figured out how to separate beef and dairy cattle by selecting the desired characteristics. Before that, a cow served both purposes.
âIn the 1950s, Michael Piel understood that we should have single-use sheep. The fewer traits you select, the better you can run this animal, âMorgan said.
Katahdin sheep are a good choice for many farmers for a number of reasons, according to Anderson, the stable manager at Unity College. They have a great flocking instinct, don’t need a lot of extra care and maintenance, are pest resistant and very weather resistant, she said. In addition, they are good mothers and tend to have very easy births.
âWe want our sheep to love their lambs,â she said. âTo take care of them and feed them. We want them to be able to lamb without help.
In the barn, watching mothers bleat for their babies, it rings true – except for a little lamb that had been born three days before, a third of a series of triplets. McKinley’s mother was only feeding two of her lambs and when she huddled up to try to suckle, the sheep abruptly pushed her aside.
âShe’ll be a bottle-fed lamb,â Anderson said, hugging McKinley against her.
Most of the lambs born at Unity will be purchased by other farmers to be part of their breeding flocks for the Katahdins. Some of the lambs are still available, Anderson said, encouraging those interested to leave a message on the college’s Facebook page. And in Maine, all farmers will be able to pronounce the name of the breed, which is certainly not always the case among other farmers across the country, Morgan said.
âPeople outside the northeast have a good chance of saying it wrong,â he said. âAbout 15 years ago, we got a message on the answering machine from North Dakota, with a farmer asking ‘Ka-ka-kaâ¦ oh, those sheep that herd cattle.’ I’m trying to be gentle and precise that it’s a mountain in Maine. And say if you’re trying to buy the sheep, it’s probably good if you try to put it right so that the person you’re buying from doesn’t think you’re a newbie and takes you to the cleaner.