NASH ISLAND, Maine — On a recent sunny May day, Alfie Wakeman bent down between two small mounds of grass to scoop up a tiny ball of white fur that bleated pathetically.
He brought the newborn close to his chest, carried it past the crumbling stone-and-brick foundations of a homestead burned to the ground decades ago, and climbed the steep stairs of a 180-year-old lighthouse that is the only structure still standing on Little Nash Island.
“She’s going to need some help,” Wakeman told his 15-year-old daughter, Evie, who had lowered her binoculars and went down to meet her father. From the top of the lighthouse, Evie had been keeping watch over a flock of 22 adult sheep that call Little Nash home, counting about a dozen lambs that had been born into the flock in the first weeks of May. Most of the newcomers kept close to their mothers’ hips, but the one Alfie picked up had been alone.
“She’s so tiny,” Evie said, taking the day-old lamb from her father. She carried it toward the shore, where the Wakemans’ skiff waited on top of seaweed-draped rocks. Her father did one more quick sweep of the island to ensure he hadn’t missed any other ailing newborns.
The lamb had been born small and weak, and was abandoned by its mother, who was grazing somewhere amid the rest of the flock on the other side of the island. Now, it’s up to the Wakemans to nurse it back to health.
The Wakemans dragged the skiff into the water. Alfie rowed out to his lobster boat, Eleni Wakes, named for his wife, which was anchored offshore. Evie cradled the struggling lamb to keep it warm.
After firing up the engines, Alfie steered the lobster boat a few hundred yards to the northeast, jumped back into the skiff, and rowed ashore on Big Nash. The Wakemans climbed up the beach, rounded rocks rolling under their feet, toward a small camp that was the lamb’s best chance at survival.
No sheep is an island
Come each May, a small cluster of islands about 3 miles off the coast of Addison in Washington County sees a surprising burst of activity. The Wakeman family runs Compass Rose Farm and oversees flocks of sheep that have lived on these islands for generations, providing wool to sell on the mainland.
These flocks call Little Nash, Big Nash and Flat islands home. Big Nash is the largest, covering more than 70 acres holding a flock of 110 sheep. Wakeman uses this as his base of operations in May when the sheep start giving birth. It has a small camp with a few beds, a wood stove, a stocked ice chest and a hand-pump well.
Inside the camp, he started a fire in the stove and put on a large kettle of water to make formula for the lamb, a special sheep’s milk substitute. He used some of the water for a sugar solution, which he injected into the lamb’s stomach to give it a boost that might get it over the hump.
The lamb struggled to swallow the formula from an eyedropper, so Evie rubbed its neck to coax it down.
Slowly, the lamb started showing more signs of life, bleating more frequently and nuzzling Evie’s finger before falling asleep in a box next to the stove.
Later, after going back to Little Nash one more time to check for any other sick newborns hidden behind rocks or mounds of grass, the Wakemans headed for home, where they’d continue to work to bring the lamb back to health. If it survives, it likely won’t be reintroduced to the island, but will become a “dooryard sheep” back at the farm in Addison, Alfie said.
Each May, about 20 to 30 sheep are born on Little Nash and Flat islands. Last December, Alfie Wakeman introduced four rams to the ewes on Little Nash Island, a move that should yield about 20 new sheep. As many as 80 can be born after the rams visit Big Nash.
Most lambs survive fine alongside their mothers, but Alfie finds a handful each season that need help, either because they’re sick, cold or weak and have been left behind. Other times, the mothers will struggle in labor and the Wakemans intervene to help the birth along. May is a busy time, so Alfie lives on the Big Nash for most of the month.
The Ladle, another nearby island that resembles an upside-down ladle, is used as a sort of summer residence for the rams, in order to prevent lamb births during a harsh island winter. The gestation period for a lamb is five months.
Population control is vital, as each island can only hold a certain number of sheep before it gets overgrazed.
The person who figured out that balance is Jenny Purington Cirone.
She was raised on Little Nash, where her father was the lighthouse keeper. When she was about 10 years old, she started raising sheep on the island. Cirone stayed active tending her sheep well into her 80s. She died in 2004 at the age of 92. The Wakemans took over for her, with the help of their three daughters when they’re home from school.
Cirone is buried on Big Nash, along with one of her brothers, according to Alfie.
Her former family home and other small buildings on the island were burned to the ground after it was deemed a liability by the Coast Guard in the 1940s, leaving only the foundations behind. The lighthouse remained standing, but was decommissioned a few decades later.
The sheep on these islands are far closer to being wild animals than farm animals.
They subsist solely on the island grass and seaweed strewn across the shore, and have no need for grain or fresh water deliveries. Even in the winter, they’re able to dig through ice or snow to get to the tufts of grass underneath. Aside from an occasional welfare check and birthing assist by the Wakemans, they’re self-sufficient.
The challenges of raising island-based sheep are many, but so are the benefits. It’s costly to haul out supplies and get to the island regularly to check on the flocks. Poor weather can waylay travel plans or make the trip treacherous. The Wakemans were once stuck on the island for two weeks as a hurricane raged offshore.
At the same time, the islands carry benefits: no natural predators — coyotes, foxes, bears and bobcats would be hard-pressed to make it this far out — no need for fencing, and plenty of land that would carry a high price tag on the mainland.
But there are still dangers. Hundreds, if not thousands, of gulls hover over and around these islands.
The herring gulls, identified by their grey wings, are harmless and largely leave the sheep alone. But the black-backed gulls, which are slightly larger and have black wings, can cause tremendous damage.
Black-backed gulls have learned to peck young lambs in a certain spot to open an artery. The lambs bleed out, and the gulls feast. On rare occasions, the black-backed gulls have even attacked and killed full-grown ewes.
Chasing off black-backed gulls to protect the flock becomes a difficult and stressful job for Alfie when he lives here in May to keep a careful eye on the lambs. He said there have been years when he has walked from one side of the island to the other, only to return to find that in the few minutes he was gone, a lamb fell victim to one of the gulls.
In spite of that threat, the flocks do well. A handful of lambs need human help to survive, some can even be reunited with their mothers afterward. Few are lost.
These islands are rugged and barren compared with their neighbors. The sheep keep any foliage chewed down, preventing any trees or large bushes from taking root.
Walking across these islands, you’re bound to spot a stark, sun-bleached white skull or spine left behind by a former member of the flock. It makes little sense to haul a sheep carcass when the gulls and other birds of prey will quickly peck it clean.
The only visitors they see regularly are those who come to check for lambs in the spring, and those who come every year for an Addison-area cultural rite of passage — shearing. Anywhere from 20 to 80 locals hop into boats and head to the islands to herd the sheep into corrals, cut their wool and fill 100-pound burlap bags to send to spinners and other producers on the mainland.
The sheep shears are the only piece of electronic equipment on any of the islands, powered by a small generator.
“Here we do things the same way they’ve always been done,” Alfie Wakeman said. “It’s a pretty amazing piece of our heritage we’ve kept alive out here.”
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.