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The Legacy of Maine Island Shepherding

The Legacy of Maine Island Shepherding

June 25, 2018

Look at a map of Maine and amongst the ragged, island-sprinkled coastline, you'll find many names related to sheep. Why? Because for generations Maine shepherds have known islands to be some of the healthiest places for sheep. 


From the moment you embark on the ocean, you quickly realize humans are not in charge. Yes, we do our best to tame and tease out a living and diet from these rough waters, but even the most seasoned fisherman is aware that with slap of her hand the Atlantic can send whomever she wants to certain doom. Yet in these conditions, animals thrive: bobbing and weaving amongst the waves, shorelines, and deep beneath the surface. Even the smallest drop of sea water is microscopically teeming with life, and islands are no exception.


Shepherds of old carefully selected which islands would be the best for sheep, and many along the coast provide a microcosm of perfect conditions. A little grass, a few trees, a boiling spring and plenty of rockweed create an environment where sheep can be at their healthiest. One hardly ever encounters the disease and foot problems that can be problematic on the mainland. Their fleeces are clean and pest free. The seaweed contains incredible amounts of nutrients, is a natural dewormer, and available year round. You'd do yourself good to snack on some every once in a while too! Here's my favorite to eat, dulce. When it's dried it's salty and crunchy like potato chips. 


Being on an island also removes the need for fences and puts sheep beyond the reach of predators. When stocked properly, sheep will graze consistently over the whole island which prevents overgrazing and weed issues. They are allowed to set their own schedules without waiting for a farmer to feed them. 


It's no secret that certain organizations try to smear shepherding as inhumane, and the misinformation put out there can scare well-meaning people who never want to see animals come to harm (as do I!) To help allay those fears, my family and I were part of a committee of working island shepherds who came together with the Maine Department of Agriculture to determine a set of best management practices for island shepherding, to help protect the tradition as well as ensure that it remains a safe and productive practice. 


But the sheep speak for themselves, as the healthiest animals we own live on islands. Look at these ewes, jigglin' fat with nice clean fleeces. You can see they've started to shed a bit because these ladies are Scottish Blackface and some of them shed out naturally while others do not.

I wish I could send everyone in the world a day on an island. It melts away the stress and restores your vigor. The longer you spend, the more you lose track of time and follow your instincts instead of your schedule. The air is so fresh, reminiscent of salt and cucumbers: or at least I've always thought so! 


Have you had the pleasure of experiencing a Maine island? If so, chime in! 


If you'd like to visit a Maine island, The Maine Coast Heritage Trust has a list right here of islands and coastal preserves you can visit! Be sure to follow their rules and never enter an island without permission.


  • How interesting and well-written! Do you have any idea how many Maine islands are used for shepherding these days? Thanks Lacie!

    Debbie Russell
  • I love reading about your amazing life! Such beauty!


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