Breed categories: medium wool, rare, heritage,feral
Distribution: United States
About 200 years ago, a flock of sheep was established on Hog Island, one of Virginia’s barrier islands. The sheep were already native to the area and are reputed to have descended from Merino and the occasional subsequent introductions of down breeds to the population, the last being in 1953, when a Hampshire ram was taken to the island. The breed evolved on its own into a hardy, self sufficient sheep.
Hog Island sheep are one of the few populations of feral sheep in the United States. Feral sheep are rare worldwide, because sheep do not adapt easily to unmanaged habitats. Feral sheep like Hog Islands are usually found on islands which lack predators.
In 1974, the island was sold to The Nature Conservancy, which decided to remove all the sheep and cattle.
Gunston Hall Plantation in Fairfax County, Virginia, eventually became the owner of the greater number of these sheep and exhibited them as part of their replication of 18th century plantation life. Hog Island sheep evolved and survived for over 200 years in an extremely harsh environment on a limited diet and no medical attention. It is estimated that there are approximately 200 Hog Island breeding ewes, mostly in Virginia, with some in Maryland.
Because of the small population, only the most general descriptions of the breed should be made. Hog Island sheep vary in physical appearance. Most of the sheep are white with spotted faces and legs, though about ten percent are black. Newborn lambs are frequently spotted over the body, but the spots usually disappear as the lambs mature. Both ewes and rams may be horned or polled. Mature animals weigh 125-200 pounds.
Wool is of medium weight and variable in type and amount. Because the sheep are feral, they can roo, which will often result in a roo line on the fleece, but most flocks are shorn as the shepherds continue to improve nutrition. Staple length varies widely but displays a nice crimp due to its merino heritage while being a short, dense lock that reflects its down breed heritage. The average staple length on the sheep we have had the pleasure of meeting has been 2-2.5″ with a micron count of between 20-3o microns. The wool can be next to skin soft, but it may take some getting used to, and is fantastic for rugged outerwear. As feral sheep they do have a lot of grease – which protects the fleece from the harsh elements.