A nonrandon assortment of genes

Imagine you and your Upper Paleolithic family are walking through the woods and happen upon an abandoned litter of Grey Wolf pups (Canus lupus). Your kids instantly fall in love with the bunch and ask to bring the group home as pets. Being the good parent that you are, you acquiesce. Over the next few weeks, and as the pups grow and mature, it becomes clear that the kids have chosen favorites from among the group. The ones which are friendly, playful, and submissive are the ones the kids gravitate toward, while the ones which stand-off and are aggressive when approached are the ones your kids shy away from. Eventually, individuals belonging to the latter group wander back into the woods and two individuals belonging to the former group remain to become part of your family. Let’s assume these are male and female (and let’s ignore the potential influences of inbreeding). The two produce a large litter. Children from an adjacent encampment visit and ask whether they might have two of the pups as pets. You agree and they select what they believe to be the friendliest male and female, and off they go. These individuals have a litter and yet another group of kids asks about a pair, and so on. If the primary focus of selection remains friendly, playful, and submissive behavior, and if these traits are genetically controlled, then over time, the members of the growing canine population will become more friendly, more playful, and increasingly submissive. This tale is entirely hypothetical but it is exactly the way in which we believe groups of archaic Grey Wolves may have given rise to what we know today as the much beloved and highly domesticated dog, Canus lupus familiaris. This practice of artificial selection has been used by humans for millennia to improve the animals we raise for food, textiles, and for work. So, let’s talk about sheep, Ovis aries, and recognize the many breeds that have been developed by artificial selection and under the watchful eyes of human farmers. Joanna and I have raised Shetland Sheep since Pairodox was first established in 1989. Those of you who read this blog carefully may have picked up on a few words, phrases, or sentiments which have suggested that Joanna and I have made the decision to disperse our flock. To say that this decision has been difficult would be an understatement, for we have applied the tenets of artificial selection for more than two decades to produce the animals that now grace our pastures. I will not provide a detailed historical review but suffice it to say that our flock began with five unprepossessing animals. Now, more than four-hundred and thirty-six animals later, we care for a spinner’s flock of forty-four animals which, in my opinion, can hold its own in direct comparison with any and all registered Shetland Sheep in the country. The improvements in fleece color, crimp, and luster and in animal conformation and adherence to breed standard have resulted from a good genetic base, lots of naturally occurring variation, and a rigorous program of selection, breeding, and of culling. The dilemma Joanna and I face is how to reconcile doing the right thing with this highly nonrandom assortment of genes and parting with animals and characteristics we have known for such a long time. The Livestock Conservancy lists the Shetland as a recovering breed. Trying to find a willing and responsible someone with appropriate infrastructure to take on the entire group has proven difficult. What we have decided to do, and the strategy which has already been set in motion, is to identify a small number of folks willing to accept a handful of animals. This way our efforts are preserved and our animals will be distributed among a number of good homes. I suppose this is akin to not putting all of your eggs into one basket. The first animals to leave the farm will do so tomorrow. Wish Joanna and me luck in the aftermath of their departure. I took some ovine portraits this past weekend during a brief period of sunshine and blue sky, it rained buckets yesterday.

30 thoughts on “A nonrandon assortment of genes

  1. Something to be very proud of … not a loss, but an achievement. Something to look back on with pride and satisfaction and delight … not to mention a reduction in workload and worry! There is always something so poignant about a major change like this, though, that it’s hard to put a finger on. At least you’ve documented their portraits so beautifully! These images will last a lifetime.

    • Such a nice, even poetic, comment. Thanks. Really. D PS: You do realize that if, in fact, ‘all of this’ may be described as an achievement, you played your part. Thank you.

  2. Sure, the signs were there. A particular post from last year — I forget which one, but it did occur to me last night, just for a second, it seems — had me wondering. Over the past few months, on several occasions you’ve noted both in your posts and in comments, that you were longing for access to different daily vistas, ones that varied from your familiar environs. More recently you’ve noted increasing interest in different work. It wasn’t until about halfway down the post, though, that I realized what was happening. Yes, in my case you did have to spell it out! I will admit that I was aware that even on closest approach PA to NH is not a daily commute but I just figured that you were what we call “wool gathering.” That’s as far as I got yesterday. I’d missed three posts from last week and began reading them in chronological order. I stopped at this one, though. Didn’t know what to say in response, frankly. “Good luck,” and “what a surprise,” just would not do. Sleeping on it made the most sense.

    Last night I dreamt that I was able to retire — really retire, I mean, not just leave one job for another. I went back to my place in Southern Harbour. The roof was magically fixed, new windows installed, new siding and the electricity reconnected. Dreams are like that—inconvenient details can be just “handled.” I looked around my property thinking about re-fencing it. Once long ago, it had been a sheep garden. I woke up in the middle of the night; nothing unusual there. I thought back to a time long, long, ago when I was a young high school teacher in that community. Retirement, then, seemed a long way off but I did think about it now and then. From time to time I would look across the harbour. It’s completely uninhabited, hilly with evergreens growing down into valleys containing the scattered pond. I often thought that with a moderate effort I could maybe turn my hand into raising some sheep, as had my ancestors on a casual basis. Plenty of room for a moderate sized flock and, at the time, no natural predators. Funny — I’d totally forgotten about that as I had not revisited that plan since moving away 23 years ago. Time has done its thing. Now, 30 years later I’m in a position to retire but, no, there will be no sheep. It’s not where my interests lie, the market for the products has further declined and now we do have predators. Coyotes have moved in with a vengeance and more recently, so, too has the Newfoundland wolf. Times and circumstances change. That’s the thought, then. That’s what came from a night’s sleep. While you are impulsive enough to wade, chest deep, into a frigid, fast moving river, I know, beyond doubt that you are not by nature one given to rash decisions. Looking back it’s clear that this decision has been coming for some time and that you all have had the time to think it through. At this point you have a solid plan in place and it’s now a matter of carrying out the steps. But it’s not just a matter of letting go, is it? Yes, the farm, in its previous state, the centre of your family and (in a way) professional life will be no more. But that’s not “it.” This is also a time of new beginnings: new work, new challenges/opportunities and, new perspectives and priorities and of course, new rituals to slowly be built. Through it all you have enjoyed a way of life that is sustainable and good. Best of all you’ve been a part of the ongoing progression of the stewardship side of humanity as we slowly move forward.

    So — on with what’s next! I wish you all the best!

    • When many folks use the term ‘thoughtful,’ as in, that was quite thoughtful of you, they don’t often stop to think what the literal meaning of the word. ‘Thoughtful’ is just that … involving thought, showing careful consideration or attention. So, when I reflect on your comments by saying that they are ‘thoughtful,’ I mean it in just that sense. Thank you. We are hoping that the physical move from Pennsylvania will happen within the next year … I believe that the emotional move has already taken place. You have done a good job of encapsulating our farm experience. I think you hit the proverbial nail on the head when you observed that this is a time for new perspectives and priorities for us. And that’s just it. The farm was a great experience for all of us these twenty years. Now that the kids have lives of their own, Joanna and I are very much interested in gaining those new perspectives and forming those new priorities. We need new territory and new challenges. To stay would be too easy. And we’ve become just a bit uncomfortable with being too comfortable? Does that make any sense? We have slowly been reducing our holdings. Because the sheep are most dear to us, they have been the last to be dispersed. This will take some time and we hope to be lambing, for perhaps the last time, this spring. It will surely be both bitter and sweet. Thanks Maurice for taking the time and for putting into words much of what Joanna and I have been thinking. D

  3. Gosh David, I’m so sorry to hear that your lifetime’s work is to be dispersed … will you keep none? I just can’t imagine how I would cope with this. I’m also so sorry to hear that it’s financial pressures rather than than some wonderful new adventure which necessitated this decision. How will Joanna knit her sheep to shawl creations? What a loss, but what a gift out to the rest of the sheep rearing world. Also I wanted to say that I loved your introduction tale … your imagination works in just the same way as mine 🙂 Great minds 🙂

    • It’s not as dark as all that Seonaid. The first group of 12 ewes left the farm on Friday and there are still 33 animals out on pasture here. As soon as the truck with the 12 disappeared down the road Joanna and I put the 14 breeds ewes out with the rams. Just this morning we noticed that Woodruff, one of the breeding rams, had found his way into Siegfried’s pasture! So, now we have two rams in with a group of girls who were only supposed to be exposed to a single ram! No end of headaches and things to do. We’ll have to go out in a few minutes to catch up Woodruff and put him back with his girls. So, you see, this is the sort of thing we’re just a bit tired of after all of these years. Anyway, Joanna will still have lambs to care for come spring and there will be no end of fleece by the time the month of May has come and gone. Until that time when the farm is sold there will always be sheep here at Pairodox. Parting with animals is difficult to be sure. It is always made easier however if we know that the animals are going to folks who appreciate them as we have. Thanks for your concerns. D (+J)

  4. Awww. This is kind of sad! First your girls grow up and leave the farm and now your “other” children are leaving. You’ve nurtured and put years of effort into getting the sheep just the way you like them and then BAM, it’s time to downsize. It’s easier with possessions as they don’t have their own personalities. I guess you have comfort in the knowledge that they’re going to good homes! Beautiful portraits. Such healthy specimens!!

    • Yup … but as we all know … life’s about doing what needs to be done, whether you want to or not. This decision has been long considered at all of those ‘department meetings’, which you steadfastly continue to refuse to attend. In your absence we voted to begin the process of dispersal. We will send the first group off this afternoon. D

      • Well … I certainly wish that we were in the position to have a cluster out here. If only the department would agree to doing meetings via skype, I’d be more than happy to attend! Good luck with things today …

        • It went well. We’re still here! We put the remaining ewes out to breed as soon as the truck disappeared down the driveway. I don’t think those that remained were even aware that some fraction of the flock wasn’t there anymore! I’ll talk to the Boss about holding those meeting via Skype! D PS: Watch for something in the post.

  5. I have no way to relate to your task of releasing the flock into the care of others. My only experience with animals, aside from the wild, is with dogs and that is entirely different I would imagine but possibly not. I hope you recover from the separation soon. I can’t imagine parting with Murphy.

    • It is interesting to compare the degree of attachment which we have to our highly domesticated ‘pets’ and with our equally domesticated ‘livestock.’ Don’t tell anyone (yeah right, I’m typing this into a public forum) … the most difficult separation I have yet to experience on the farm was over the departure of my favorite of ‘all time,’ and that was the day Highland Hollow Duke of Devonshire left for a place in New York (http://wp.me/p1yRFa-46r), he was an American Milking Devon bull. He was massive, nearly a ton as a four year old. He and I always got along well … and that’s saying lots to be able to say you got along ‘well’ with a mature bull. He was great, and I enjoyed raising him from a calf. Leading him from his pasture to where we loaded animals was difficult. All the time it was sort of like the look in your dog’s eye when you load him/her into the car for a trip to the veterinarian’s office. They look full of anticipation and perhaps a bit of fear. Duke was a gentleman though and walked right along, quietly. When the trailer arrived I imagined he gave me a look, as if to say, ‘I trusted you and this is the thanks I get?’ I was a bit worried about loading the Duke … I was taking him away from his cows … off his pasture … and away … and he knew it. What a great animal though, he gave us no trouble and ambled right up the ramp and in to the trailer – no worries. And, off he went, down the driveway. People laugh when I say I miss him … but I do. I don’t miss having to care for him and I don’t miss having to worry about him (one always worries about bulls), but I do miss HIM. D

  6. They have such human faces … or we have such sheep-like faces … I’m not sure. Parting, sweet sorrow. But I know you’ll find excellent homes for them.

    • I liked your opening observation Ogee. Joanna and I have discussed, on more than one occasion, whether cats and dogs can express emotion in their faces … as we humans certainly can. And if so, where, along the animal lineage, was this capacity first developed? For chickens, turkeys, and geese certainly cannot express emotion in this way (they can via wing display and such, but not in their faces). Cows and horses cannot, or at least I don’t think they can. Sheep and goats … no. But, cats and dogs? Joanna says ‘yes.’ I say ‘no.’ What say you? D

  7. I think I did not read some postings carefully enough – or I did not get the message or simply could not imagine Pairodox without sheep, although I have just followed your blog for about a year. Now I understand … 😦

    It’s hard to say something sensible or appropriate as I don’t have comparable experience to share. But I think you and Joanna can be quite proud of what you have done in the past 25 years. Raising such animals makes so much more sense to me than many other occupations that are – unfortunately – rewarded more in an economic sense.

    On a lighter side – this post is sublime … starting with a story explaining artificial selection (I could imagine that turned into an educational animated cartoon) until “it rained buckets” – what imagery.

    • Thanks Elke for, especially, your last thought. I like it that you have described this post as ‘sublime.’ Indeed … later today we will sort and then load the first group of perhaps 10 or 12 animals to find their new home, about an hour-and-a-half from us. Wish us luck. Perhaps a post will develop from the event? D

    • Hey there Playamart, thanks for checking in and for the comment. Aren’t sheep’s (and goat) eyes wonderful? Their differently-shaped iris makes me do a double-take some times. They are oblong rather than round like ours. And, I can tell you from experience that they do not glow in the dark but will reflect lots and lots of light if you are out in the pastures with a flashlight on a dark night. They have more night time acuity than we do for they will graze at night during the worst of the summer heat. Thanks again for checking in. D

        • Yes Z … why is it that doing the right thing always to be so difficult? Why does it always take so much physical and emotional work? What does that say about doing the wrong thing? It would be so much easier to simply ignore the inevitability of having to disperse the flock and simply attend to this later. Why is doing the right thing and being pro-active about it such a battle? Seeing the dentist, seeing the doctor, doing your taxes, fixing the car, mowing the lawn, doing the shopping? Whatever happened to simply living and not worrying about such things? I digress! We will indeed do the right thing, however difficult it may be. The first allotment of sheep will depart the farm later today. Actually, we do have some experience with this sort of division and separation, for we also raised cattle and hogs in the not-so-distant past. The decision to disperse those groups was based more on finances then on any impending change in location and lifestyle (as is the current decision). It is always hard to work on something for so long and then have to distance yourself from it. A painter or a sculptor can, I suppose, always have that painting or that sculpted piece on the wall or table. A farmer, however, deals in the business of living things – and few of these can be preserved in my living room or den! Thanks for your support. D (+J)

          • Part of Kipling’s poem, if, helped me a lot when I was struggling with a decision that went against what ‘others’ wished for me. If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, and make allowance for their doubting too. We all have our destinies, and both of you are stepping into the next chapter of yours! z

            • Thanks so much z. I am writing on Saturday; a group of 12 animals left yesterday afternoon. We immediately put the animals which remained into their breeding groups – so they all have other things on their minds and haven’t yet figured out that some fraction of their flock is not there! It went well and Joanna and I know it’s for the best. Heck … we still put 14 ewes out with the rams … if all goes well, we will have 28 little ones come spring! Thanks for the very supportive words. D

  8. Oh my. I understand what you two are facing. I thought I was practical and stoic when we sold our stock, but I surprised myself by bursting into tears. It might have been an easier day if I had done as you two are, and acknowledged the change in advance. My thoughts are that dispersing the flock is wise. Those well-cared-for genes will be gifts to many future lives, I am sure.

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