UNITY, Maine — The lambs were only a few days old, but they pranced, butted each other and suckled on their mothers with confidence and only a few wobbles.
They didn’t even seem to mind the folks who dropped by the Unity College Barn to watch the school’s newest, cutest residents play, eat and nap. When it’s lambing season at Unity College, everybody wants to come visit. This year, the first-ever triplets were born to one of the sheep, and they have been a big draw to the barn, too.
“We have a lot of faculty and staff and students that get excited and want to help out down there,” Pamela MacRae, the dean of the school of biodiversity conservation, said this week. “At Unity, we really pride ourselves on experiential learning. We don’t have to go out and seek experiences for them at local farms when we have it right here on campus.”
The small liberal arts college with a strong focus on sustainability doesn’t have the biggest barn or the most animals, but the ones they do have are pretty interesting. The lambs’ next-door neighbors in the barn are curious San Clemente Island goats, a critically endangered breed that the college is helping to bring back from the brink. Two years ago, there were fewer than 1,000 of the goats in the world. And the lambs themselves, though not endangered, have a proud Maine pedigree that Barn Manager Megan Anderson is happy to recount.
“The sheep were actually named after Mt. Katahdin and developed in Maine,” she said. “The Piel family wanted to develop a sheep they didn’t have to shear. They wanted an animal that wouldn’t have this work and waste, and these guys are strictly for meat. … Katahdins continue to gain in popularity, and the Katahdin hair sheep registry is registering thousands of lambs a year. It is kind of cool that this Maine sheep is becoming a worldwide sensation.”
So just how did the Katahdin hair sheep come into being? It all started in the 1950s on a farm in Abbot Village in Piscataquis County, during a time when wool was beginning to go out of favor as a clothing fabric. Farmer Michael Piel, an amateur geneticist who had moved to Maine after World War II, liked raising livestock and wanted to see if he could breed a meat sheep that doesn’t need to be sheared.
Hair sheep like the Katahdin do not produce wool but instead grow a thick winter coat that is shed in the summertime. There are other breeds of hair sheep, with about 100 million of the woolless animals located around the world. The majority of those live in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and when Piel saw pictures of West African hair sheep in a National Geographic magazine in the mid-1950s, he started making inquiries about the breed. In 1957, he imported three hair sheep to start his breeding project in 1957.
According to Katahdin Hair Sheep International, the Fayetteville, Arkansas-based registry organization for the breed, Piel wanted to combine the hair coat and hardiness of the Virgin Island sheep with the speedy growth rate and meat quality of the wool breeds. He began to cross the hair sheep with wool breeds from Britain, and after nearly 20 years of crossing the resulting hybrids for his selected traits, he collected a flock of 120 of his best ewes and called them Katahdins.
Piel died of a heart attack in 1976 and did not live to see the fate of his sheep, which has been extraordinary, according to Jim Morgan, a breeder who operates Katahdin Hair Sheep International. In two of the last three years, there have been more Katahdins registered in the U.S. than any other breed of sheep, he said, and has also been the most popular breed of sheep registered in Mexico. Katahdins have been exported to Central and South America, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and the United Kingdom.
“It’s very much a growing, very active breed,” he said in a telephone interview this week. “It’s very well suited for many parts of the United States, especially the eastern parts. … It does well in the heat and also the cold. Not many breeds of livestock 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 desired traits. Before that, one cow served both purposes.
“In the 1950s, Michael Piel figured out that we should have some single-purpose sheep. The fewer traits you select for, the better you can make that animal work,” Morgan said.
Katahdin sheep are a good choice for many farmers for many reasons, according to Anderson, the Unity College barn manager. They have great flocking instincts, don’t need a lot of extra care and maintenance, are parasite resistant and are very weather-hardy, she said. Also, they are good mothers and tend to have very easy births.
“We want our ewes to like their lambs,” she said. “To pay attention to them and feed them. We want them to be able to lamb without assistance.”
In the barn, watching the mothers bleat for their babies, that rings true — except for one little lamb who had been born three days before, the third of a set of triplets. McKinley’s mother would only feed two of her lambs and when she nuzzled up to try to nurse, the sheep brusquely brushed her aside.
“She’ll be a bottle-fed lamb,” Anderson said, cuddling McKinley against her.
Most of the lambs born at Unity will be purchased by other farmers to become part of their breeding stock for 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 of the farmers will be able to say the name of the breed, which certainly isn’t always the case among other farmers in the country, Morgan said.
“People from outside the northeast have a good chance of saying it wrong,” he said. “We had a message on the answering machine about 15 years ago from North Dakota, with a farmer asking for ‘Ka-ka-ka … oh, those cattle-driving sheep.’ I try to be gentle, and point out that it’s a mountain in Maine. And say that if you’re trying to buy the sheep, it’s probably good if you try to say it right so the person you’re buying from doesn’t think you’re a rookie and take you to the cleaners.”