Mount Vernon shares sheep

Sunday night was the first time George and Noel had ever spent the night together. On Monday at sunrise the two, who rarely saw each other around the 500-acre estate, hopped in a red Ford pickup truck and left their friends, family and Virginia home behind.

They were leaving the Mount Vernon they had come to know for another Mount Vernon across the Potomac. By 9 a.m. they arrived at GW’s Mount Vernon Campus, where they found themselves to be the only animals.

George and Noel are two sheep from George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate that were given to University President Steven Knapp as an inaugural gift at a special ceremony Monday morning.

To fortify a relationship with GW, the Mount Vernon estate approached Knapp’s wife, Diane, to see if they would be interested in adding two more sheep to their flock at their Sparks, Md., farm. The Knapps already care for about 15 sheep but were willing to welcome two new additions, Diane said.

Diane and Sarah, the Knapps’ eldest daughter, dressed for the occasion wearing wool sweaters that were knitted with the yarn that they had sheared from their farm- – George and Noel wore their usual off-white fleece.

The Mount Vernon Campus was also spruced up for the event. A table of hot apple cider, hot chocolate, sheep-shaped cookies and hand sanitizer welcomed guests as they came off the shuttle. George Washington books, puzzles, trivia questions and two balls of award-winning fleece from George and Noel’s fellow sheep were strewn across several tables.

Redcoats paced the campus beating their drums to the sound of a colonial rhythm and George and Martha Washington interpreters greeted guests in their traditional 18th-century garb. George and Noel, the stars of the event, remained in a small pen amongst the colonial revelry.

George and Noel are of the Hogg Island breed, which is very similar to the breed of sheep George Washington herded on his then 8,000-acre Mount Vernon estate. By comparing Washington’s diary notes, similarities can be drawn between the Hogg Island and the nearly 1,000 Liecester Longwools and Merinos Washington had. All three breeds produce three to five pounds of wool per sheep and weigh typically 150 to 200 pounds – a small size for the animal.

There are about 200 Hogg Island sheep in existence. Forty live on the Mount Vernon estate near Alexandria, Va., and a majority of the remaining live on a breeding farm in Stafford, Va. Although the sheep on Knapp’s farm are not of the Hogg Island breed, George and Noel should not have a hard time fitting in, said Lisa Pregent, the livestock supervisor at Mount Vernon.

“Sheep are herd animals. As long as other sheep are around, they’re happy. They tend to stay together no matter what,” Pregent said.

Also, the environment of Knapp’s farm is similar to what George and Noel are used to. They will eat the same diet of milled grain and hay and will be around other animals. At Washington’s Mount Vernon there are horses, mules and pigs. On the Knapp farm there are sheep – most of which are named after flowers – dogs, chicken and a bunny named Nutmeg. Often at Mount Vernon, wild birds will piggyback the sheep while they graze, however, it is unlikely that Knapp’s chickens will be taking piggyback rides on George and Noel because the chickens are well-secured in a coop, Diane said.

Sarah said everyone, including the newly inaugurated president, helps out around the farm, which is situated nearly 70 miles away from GW.

“Sheep are actually low maintenance,” Sarah said, adding that they only require food and an occasional trim. Over the years the Knapps have cared for about 30 sheep, although now they only have about half as many.

Diane said the cost of shearing their sheep and turning the wool into yarn is more expensive than the little they make off it. In fact, much of their guesthouse is filled with balls of unsold yarn.

At the original Mount Vernon, the sheep’s fleece is typically sheared in the months leading up to summer. A local volunteer will clean their wool and turn it into yarn. The volunteer then sells the yarn on ebay. A majority of the proceeds then pay for the sheep’s food, health care and general upkeep.

In the early 1990s, Mount Vernon received its first Hogg Island sheep from Virginia Tech. Their original flock of six sheep grew to their current population of about 45 in the past few years. There are 18 ewes, 25 lambs and the rest are males. The sheep are separated into pens throughout the estate. The pens typically range in size but on average measure at about an acre. Every so often the sheep are rotated between pens, Pregent said, who has been working with the sheep for more than 10 years. Washington would do a similar rotation with his livestock to revitalize the grass and land, she said. The livestock employees try to do as much around the estate that mirrors Washington’s techniques. They also interpret his techniques and ask questions such as: “Why did Washington have animals? What type of animals would he have had and how would he use them and take care of them?”

When it came to choosing which sheep to give away, Pregent and the staff considered several factors. They chose George, who is about nine months old, because he was a bottle baby – an orphan raised by humans. This experience made him friendly and used to being petted and touched. Pregent said his personality would make it easy for him to adjust to a new home. Noel, who is also about nine months old, was chosen as the female after Pregent researched the bloodlines of the sheep on Mount Vernon. She said she has to be careful with which sheep remain on the estate to prevent incest. Pregent, who said sheep are her passion, keeps records of each one’s bloodline and lineage. Along with receiving George and Noel, the Knapps received their lineage records.

When asked whether the sheep will remember the estate, Pregent said sheep have good memories, but she does not know if they will notice that they are somewhere new. Although George and Noel may not remember Pregent and their fellow Mount Vernon sheep, Pregent said she would miss the two and would like to visit them at their new home.

“Every now and then there’s a sheep that comes along that you just attach to. They’re kind of like dogs. When you find the one you like, you love them forever,” she said. “Whenever you sell or donate a sheep, it’s hard to see them go. But it’s for a good cause and they’re going to a good home.”

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