Have We Any Wool?

Yes, lots more than three bags full- probably more like twenty!

The lambs were shorn yesterday, and I got twelve pretty fleeces off them. Including the ones from when the ewes were shorn back in the spring, we have a lot of fleeces to clean and send off to be milled into roving.

The lambs all look pretty silly with their new haircuts, and the really funny thing is that they no longer recognize each other, so ever since the shearer left there has been a lot of baa-ing.

A couple of the lambs have figured out that minus their wool coats they can now squeeze through the space between the gate and the gatepost.   I found this guy on the lawn outside my studio.

Here is a selection of the raw fleece colours. I think they are lovely, and the raw wool is incredibly soft to the touch.

Black Border-Leicester- Blue Faced Leicester cross

Blue Faced Leicester – Jacob (and unknown) cross

Blue Faced Leicester
Hand spinning wool is the closet thing I have to a hobby. I like to work at my wheel in the winter when labour on the farm slows down a bit and it’s too cold to do much outdoors. At least, I liked to spin wool until a certain cat chewed up the drive band on my spinning wheel. Yes, I’m talking about you, Kevin. Oh, and by the way, Kevin is a girl…which is kind of a long story. I must remember to get that drive band replaced before winter!
Doesn’t she look pleased with herself?

More Snow, More Lambs, and a Video!

If my calculations are correct, today is our 124th day of winter and we are enjoying yet another snowstorm. This must be pretty close to a record, I would think.

I made the mistake of walking out to our back pasture this morning to get a shot of the farm. I should have gone on skis because the snow was over my boots. As you can see, even my dog wasn’t sticking around.
Normally by this time of year the ground is bare and my crocuses are poking their heads out to catch the first rays of warm spring sun. Never mind crocuses, we haven’t seen the ground since late November, so I broke down and bought a pot of daffodils. Spring has almost arrived in my studio. 
The lambs keep coming, too. So far we have four sets of twins and a single with a couple of ewes left to go.
Here are some of the babies cuddled up together in the lamb creep. A creep is a small place for little lambs to go where they get introduced to eating grain and hay without being disturbed by the big sheep. They also like to hang out in there and I frequently find them all sleeping together in a warm, wooly little pile.
And now for the exciting art related news:
 Last spring my photographer friend Tracy Martin came for a visit and shot a couple of hours of video footage of the farm and of me working in my studio. Now I am happy to be able to share with you the results here!  


Dumb Dora in the Doorway- photo © the artist

“You know, ever since 2011 began, crazy stuff has been happening. Trouble on all levels: here on the farm, in the Middle East … a lot of unrest … must be something to do with the planets.” my friend Anna-Maria said to me recently. From the start of lambing back in February, bad things kept happening on her farm. There were stricken ewes, rejected lambs, surprise pregnancies gone horribly wrong, outbreaks of foot rot and orf: it was a litany of disaster.

“Well,” I said, trying to inject a little levity into the situation, “maybe you’re getting a jump on the whole 2012 thing. Maybe the end of the world really is coming- and it’s starting on your farm!”

Anna-Maria laughed. “Shh, don’t say that!,” she said, “you might bring it on. I mean, it’s not like I’m really worried about the apocalypse, but why toy with it?”

Not being an especially superstitious person, naturally I scoffed at the idea that you could bring on your own bad luck. Besides, nothing was wrong on our farm…

The first thing to go wrong on our farm happened almost immediately. An older ewe, always a little peculiar, began acting really strangely. Although she continued to eat well, I often found her lying alone in dark corners of the barn. When she did move about, she was slow, her gait awkward, her expression blank and staring. I combined these symptoms along with her pre-existing quirks- compulsive lip licking and a crazy sensitivity to having her back scratched – and the search engine result was always the same: SCRAPIE. I phoned the vet.

As luck would have it, my regular vet was on vacation. An eager, new veterinarian, fresh out of school, arrived at our farm. He examined the ewe and agreed that her gait and nibble reflex were odd. She also had pneumonia and he treated her for that. When I asked him if he had ever seen scrapie before he admitted he hadn’t, but was nevertheless fairly sure he would know it if he saw it. He agreed that, based on the ewe’s history and her current symptoms (pneumonia notwithstanding), she was indeed a suspicious case. I was horrified. The vet told me not to worry, that the risk of scrapie transmission to humans was “theoretical” at best.

“Besides,” he added in all seriousness, “the disease has been in circulation for at least four hundred years and if it were transmissible to humans then the Scots would all be crazy.”

I felt so much better.

CFIA phoned me straightaway and placed our farm under quarantine. They arrived shortly thereafter to inspect my deranged ewe. Preceded as they were by their sheep beheading reputation, I was fearful at what the future might hold for my sheep.

After observing the ewe and bearing witness to her Exorcist –like reaction to having her back touched, the CFIA vet agreed that the ewe was peculiar (no dissent on that particular question), but as she appeared to be in good condition generally -her pneumonia was clearing- they opted keep her in quarantine until she either turned out to be genotype resistant, or for three months. I welcomed the inconvenience if it meant I got to keep my sheep. Thankfully, the worst was behind me. Or so I thought.

No sooner had our scrapie scare been dealt with than another ewe became sick, this time it was Dumb Dora. After the scrapie episode, I developed a sense of foreboding and began stocking up on supplies that I might need in case of sheep related emergencies. In addition to the extra syringes, gloves and antibiotics, I picked up a gallon of glycol to treat toxaemia- just in case. So it was no surprise really when Dora began exhibiting symptoms of toxaemia two days later. I congratulated myself on the purchase of the glycol.

A day went by and Dora showed no signs of improvement. I knew my regular vet was in the area, so I asked her to stop in and have a look, just to be sure. The vet examined Dora, confirmed the toxaemia diagnosis, and left me with instructions to feed the animal whatever she was willing to eat, and also to increase the dose of glycol- which I did.

I was dismayed to see no improvement in Dora by the following morning. If anything, the ewe looked worse, and in addition to the jaundice, lethargy and anorexia , she now had a new symptom: black urine. Black! That couldn’t be good…

“No, that’s very weird.” the eager, young vet said when I phoned the clinic. Clearly this was not toxaemia. His scientific curiosity piqued, he came out to the farm to have a look at the ewe and phoned me later to tell me that blood samples he had taken revealed that Dora was having a haemolytic crisis.

“A haemo- what -now?” I asked, confused.

“Basically, all her red blood cells have exploded,” he said to me, “that’s why her urine looked black. You haven’t been feeding her onions, have you?”

“Onions?” I asked. What kind of weirdo did this guy think I was!

“Well, it can be caused by excessive consumption of onions. I felt compelled to ask.” he said, clearly assuming I was some sort of weirdo. “So, since we’ve ruled out the onions that leaves us with an autoimmune reaction or copper toxicity. Copper poisoning seems more likely. You haven’t been giving the sheep pig feed, have you?”

“Pig feed? “ I asked, alarmed. “No, we only feed our pigs onions.”

“Excuse me?”

“I said we don’t have any pigs.”


The prognosis for copper poisoning was not good and the source of the copper was a mystery. I wracked my brain trying to remember everything I had fed the sheep, what they could have gotten into. Had they chewed on water pipes? Was my grain somehow contaminated, a mineral block mislabelled? None of the answers seemed especially realistic. Only one possible solution remained.

The previous fall I had raised twenty Guinea fowl for the freezer. They proved to be my most ill conceived and expensive farming idea to date. By the time they had reached a suitable table weight, the Guineas had cost at least $25 in feed per bird, all of this excluding the cost of slaughtering them, plus the time and general aggravation of keeping them- to which I could now add the extra cost of vet visits and copper antidote for sheep. Worst of all, the Guineas were inedible; stewed boots would have been more appetizing.

The reason for the poor feed conversion ratio of the Guineas only became obvious when I shovelled out the litter from their pen. In addition to the shavings, I also shovelled out at least twenty kilos of feed, maybe more. For the want of a better place to put it, I buried the feed laced litter in the manure pile and I covered it up, thinking to keep it out of reach of my dogs. I guess I should have been more concerned about keeping it out of the reach of my sheep.

Over the weekend Dora’s condition worsened and I fully expected her to die. Unable to find anyone willing to shoot her, I resolved to have my regular vet come out first thing Monday morning and euthanize her. Monday morning came, and Dora was still down…until the vet arrived.

“You’re not going to believe this,” I said to the vet as she got her equipment out of the van, “but that ewe must have heard me on the phone to you. Fifteen minutes ago she got up.”

Sure enough, when we got into the barn, there was Dumb Dora, dopey as ever, but looking quite healthy, happily munching away with her flock mates. She was no longer jaundiced, her urine was a normal colour, and she didn’t appear to have lost much body condition. You would never guess that anything had happened to her.

“She actually looks pretty good,” said the vet, completely puzzled, “ but if you want to confirm the diagnosis of copper poisoning, we would have to do a necropsy and send the liver to P.E.I. for analysis. What do you want to do?”

I sighed and thought for a moment. At this point, if anybody’s liver was going on holiday to Prince Edward Island, it ought to be mine. “Oh, forget it.” I said, “Just leave her.”

Maedi Visna, caseous lymphadenitis, Chlamydia psitacci. The more time I spent researching sheep diseases, the more anxious I became. We hadn’t even started lambing yet; what else was going to go wrong? I was too embarrassed to phone the vet any more, especially since the receptionist had started answering the phone with: “Hi Alyson. What is it this time?”

Eventually and against all odds, Dora did get better. Our scrapie case turned out not to be scrapie at all, but a combination of pneumonia, overgrown feet and excessive Googling. I wish I could say that this was the end of our bad luck, but it was really just the beginning. Out of a flock eight ewes – in addition scrapie scare and copper poisoning- we’ve had two abortions, two retained placentae, one barely averted prolapse, ring womb , breech lambs, one dead lamb, a foot abscess, entropion , inexplicable lameness and now lice. Who knows what plagues summer will bring?

So the moral of this story is…. I guess there really is no moral. I’m still not entirely convinced that you can bring disaster your way by merely taunting it. Sometimes bad luck just happens. You learn what you can from it, and then you move on. Now I have some tough decisions to make. I know farmers always say culling makes the herd, but if I were to cull all the trouble makers from my flock, I would be left raising chickens, which, come to think of it, doesn’t sound like such a bad idea!

Sleepy in the Sun – photo © the artist

Ian Brown: Rent-A-Ram

We are having a fitful start to spring out here in Southwestern Quebec. One day it’s blisteringly hot, the next day it’s snowing. My rhubarb and garlic are both up and doing well, but with this unpredictable weather, I don’t dare plant anything in the garden because one day to the next it’s hard to know what to expect. I guess that’s just how it is when relying on Mother Nature; you have to learn to expect surprises.

Last Fall I borrowed a young ram from a friend. Ian Brown (not to be confused with the writer of the same name) is a Dorset/Jacob cross, and I fell in love with him at first sight. He was such a cute little fellow, I was curious to see what the resulting offspring would look like if I bred my ewes to him.

Ian Brown

I thought he might be a little small for the task, and he was certainly inexperienced, but then I figured that Nature invariably finds a way, so after a few days in de-worming quarantine, I put him in with my ewes. He was very interested in the girls. Unfortunately, the feeling wasn’t mutual. Their reaction to Ian fell somewhere between horror and disgust. In his deep, baritone voice (think ovine Barry White), Ian would call to the girls and approach them with what I imagine must have been something like, “Heyyy Baaaaaaby!”. And the girls, well, they ran as fast as they could to whatever place he wasn’t. When he saw the ewes running, of course Ian would run too, no doubt thinking that if they were running, there must be some reason to run. Poor Ian, he never caught on that HE was the reason. This went on for several days. Ian would approach the ewes, the ewes would run; Ian would run in pursuit of the ewes, the ewes would run faster; Ian would try to catch up, the ewes kept running, and so on. For about a week we must have had the most fit and thoroughly exercised sheep in the county. It also seemed highly unlikely that any of them were going to get pregnant that way.

Finally I decided to take matters into my own hands. I put Ian and one of the girls, Fionna, who was in heat, into a pen together. A couple of flakes of hay, a little grain, a water bucket, some soft lighting: the stage was set for sheep romance. Ian was certainly happy with this new arrangement. Fionna couldn’t run away, nor did she seem inclined to- she was too busy eating. Ian tried to approach the matter from several different angles, but Fionna continually evaded him, chewing all the while. Once or twice, I saw her shoot him a look that as much as said, “Do you mind? I’m eating! Quit bothering me, you jerk!”. I started to think that my plan was a lost cause.

I crossed my fingers and left them together for a day or two, and then returned them both to the fold. The others ceased running from Ian Brown and things eventually settled down. The girls accepted Ian’s presence, but there didn’t seem to be a lot “going on”, if you catch my drift. I continued to hope. About two and a half weeks later, what hope I had was dashed when I noticed Fionna had come into heat again. I had to conclude that Ian was just the wrong ram for the job. So I sent the poor boy packing and brought in a bigger, older Border Leicester ram (Julius) to finish the job before my girls went out of season.

I began to suspect something was up a few weeks ago when I noticed a couple of the girls looking very pregnant- too pregnant for Julius to be the father. It seems Nature had some surprises in store for us after all, and I don’t just mean the weather. Sure enough, last week the lambs started arriving.

Finneas Brown and Chocolate Legs

As yet unnamed ram lamb.

Congratulations, Ian brown. Well done and good on ye lad!

What’s on the Easel?

I’m still in the planning stage for several collages. In the next few days I’m going to have to make some decisions about colours and papers. For the time being, I’m still drawing. Here is the line drawing plan of my first big landscape collage. The subject is the Port Daniel lighthouse in Gaspé, Quebec.

Port Daniel Lighthouse– preparatory line drawing on paper,© 2010 Alyson Champ

Going Ovine

I’m not exactly sure what it is about sheep that is so appealing, but I’m happy to know that I’m not the only artist to find myself visually hooked on them. I have recently come across a collection of drawings by British sculptor Henry Moore depicting the sheep he saw outside the window of his studio. He too was fascinated by their beauty, their solid shape, and their behavior. Several of the drawings show the interactions of lambs and ewes, which bring to mind some of Moore’s maternally themed sculptures.

Photo © Alyson Champ

While we are on the subject of sheep and maternity, and with lambing nearly upon us, I can’t help but think back to last year’s experience with lambing. It was the first time we had bred our ewes, and as much as it was exciting, it was also nerve-racking and exhausting. Lambs, much like human babies, prefer to arrive in the middle of the night or the wee small hours of the morning. I spent a number of long nights out in the barn, waiting and watching and acting as midwife. The birth of our first lamb, however, I did not witness as she came as a total surprise. She was a few days early, and the ewe, a first time mother, didn’t really show much sign of going into labour. I got quite a shock when I went out to the barn early one morning to feed the sheep and heard a little voice calling out, “Baaa”. I looked around but could see nothing in the pen, just my sheep standing at the feeder waiting to be fed. I went into the pen with an armful of hay and again, “Baaaa”. There at my feet, in the bottom of the hay rack, was a beautiful little white lamb, still wet, and shivering with cold. Her mother had given birth to her and then, not knowing what to do, abandoned her. The baby had crawled into the hay to keep warm. Ewe and lamb had to be forcibly reunited and the ewe needed to be restrained in order to allow the lamb to nurse. It took the better part of a day before mother and child actually bonded, but they did, and the ewe proved to be an excellent mother, if initially a reluctant one.

Photo © Alyson Champ

What’s on the Easel
My collage exhibition is drawing to a close. The last day is April 4th. I’m delighted that my sheep collages have proved to be popular and I have sold several of them. I guess people just like sheep!

Celeste – 9×12, painted paper collage on panel ©2010 Alyson Champ

Julius the Magnificent- 12×12 painted paper collage on panel, ©2010 Alyson Champ
Fabulous Fionna- 9×12 painted paper collage on panel, ©2010 Alyson Champ