The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, March 7, 2008


Sheep return to Carlisle pasture, with lambs this time

Cheryl Oetting (left) and Judy Asarkof cuddle with their weeks-old lambs.


Residents who once delighted in watching sheep cropping away on the Towle Land will be pleased to know that Carlisle has a new flock of 27 sheep, including 11 lambs, in the field behind the Woodward house at Maple Street and Bedford Road. Unlike the Towle Land sheep that were rented for a few weeks each year to control the grass, poison ivy and buckthorn that plague that piece of conservation land, the Sunflower Farm sheep are here to stay. On most days, they can be glimpsed browsing in the Maple Street pasture, but at sundown they are herded into two pens with a shelter against the wind and weather and the possible coyote.

A sheep-herding project

Traditionally sheep have been raised for meat, for wool, or for milk to make cheese, but the Sunflower Sheep Farm exists primarily to train dogs to herd sheep. The concept originated during a dinner table conversation last October between two local women who were training their dogs to be herding dogs using positive methods. At that time, River Road resident Judy Asarkof and Bedford resident Cheryl Oetting were talking with their herding instructor, Carol Wilkie, who was visiting from the Raspberry Ridge Sheep Farm in Pennsylvania, about the difficulty of training dogs in Massachusetts when the sheep they were learning to herd were so far away.

Two-week-old Scilla takes a flying leap off a hay bale while her mother Violet keeps a watchful eye on her energetic lamb. (Photo by Ellen Huber)

The idea of establishing a practice flock in the Carlisle area was born, and subsequently a location for the new flock was found in the long field on Woodward property. Asarkof, when interviewed in the field among her sheep last week, said she and Oetting are thankful for the Woodwards’ cooperation and support in allowing them to lease land for the Sunflower Sheep operation, and both are pleased with their Maple Street neighbors’ acceptance and encouragement.

Learning the business

Just as Asarkof and Oetting are learning how to keep a flock of sheep, Mick, Asarkof’s Old English Sheepdog, and Oetting’s Australian Shepherds, Piper and Theo, are learning how to be professional herding dogs. Barking is not permitted (Mick was put back in the car when he barked), and the sheep are approached only on command. There are still more lambs to be born and real formal work with the dogs won’t begin until the lambs, now two weeks and four weeks old, in the pasture are older, and the lambs yet to be born join them there.

Managing the present herd requires persistence and stamina. While they are in the field together during the day, the lambs and their mothers are separated into a kindergarten group and a maternity ward group at night, a process that requires both agility and patience. These groupings will change when the new baby lambs are born.

Keeping things natural

It’s playtime at Sunflower Sheep Farm for ewes, lambs and humans Kathleen Coyle (center) and Judy Asarkof. (Photo by Ellen Huber)

Asarkof’s and Oetting’s goal is to raise sheep completely naturally. They will “eat as nature intended” with only hay and grass for food, and live and give birth in the field on their own. This initial flock of mostly Tunis sheep was brought up from Wilke’s herd in Pennsylvania in early winter. They had already been bred to lamb between December and March, a fact that required an extended period of checking on the state of the ewes at four-hour intervals. In two cases this attention saved the life of the newborn lamb. Round-the-clock surveillance will continue until the two remaining pregnant sheep give birth.

Later in the spring, when the lambs are able to make it on their own, most of Wilke’s original sheep will be returned to her in Pennsylvania and the lambs will stay in Carlisle as the first generation of Sunflower Sheep Farm. Asarkof says her sheep “are all good mothers,” but eventually any ewes who have difficulty lambing or caring for their young will be culled from the flock so that it can exist independently in a natural manner. Next year Asarkof plans to have the lambs born in early April.

Llama to join sheep

A coyote trots through the Sunflower Sheep Farm pasture almost every day and has not presented a threat so far, but the owners plan to get a llama to serve as night watchman as well as a deterrent to loose dogs and coyotes when the lambs are strong enough to be left out overnight.

While their destiny is to live naturally and independently, this flock has some more personal characteristics. There are clear personality traits, and all have names, mostly botanical in origin: Pansy with the black face is the mother of Fig, the strong black lamb; Sweet Pea is the mother of the intrepid Peapod; Lily has twin lambs, Holly and Ivy. Then there are Violet and Viola, and Pumpkin. Poppy and Bacchus are males. Joey and Jake are two-week old twins, distinguishable from the rest of the flock because Joey is always bleating, and Jake, who got imprinted on humans in the first hours of life when they were helping him learn to get milk from his mother, likes human attention and will willingly be held and petted, unlike the other lambs. Jake’s eyes are still blue but that won’t last long. Before long he and Joey won’t be the babies any more, and new lambs, with new names, and a new llama will come to the Sunflower Sheep Farm. ∆

© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito