If you’ve spent any time at the Thompson-Neely Farmstead, you’ve likely seen the beloved sheep and goats that call Washington Crossing Historic Park their home.
The flock of eleven sheep features several heritage breeds that could have been found in colonial America. Five are Leicester Longwool, an English breed developed in the 18th century and found in George Washington’s flock at Mount Vernon. This breed was once popular in early America, but nearly went extinct in the 1900s. It’s now considered “threatened” by the Livestock Conservancy. The flock also has three Dorset sheep and one Cotswold – both are English breeds that predate the 18th century. Finally, there’s one Babydoll Southdown and one Shropshire. These breeds were developed in the 19th and 20th centuries.
While goats would have been present in colonial Bucks County, there are no records of distinct breeds imported during that time period. The goats at the Thompson-Neely Farmstead are African Pygmy goats.
Have you ever wondered what goes into caring for the flock? We sat down with farmstead manager Ross Heutmaker to learn more about their feeding, veterinary care, and more.
The sheep and goats are looked after by Ross and a team of 12 volunteers who have a designated day to assist with the animals’ care each week.
Each day begins by checking on the sheep and goats to ensure that nothing has happened to them overnight. “The animals are usually all together when we get there, and when we show up, they’ll come running into the barn. Some of them even recognize my car. They know someone’s coming to see them,” Ross says.
The volunteers check that all the animals are accounted for and looking well. If any of them are sitting down, they have the animal move around to be sure they’re not in distress.
Most of the time, all the sheep and goats have stayed in the farmstead all night. Occasionally, one of the goats will have strayed beyond the fence.
“They’re little things, and they can squeeze through gaps in the fence,” he explains. “But funny enough, when they do go out, it’s not to run away. They just want the grass on the other side. And we’ve had a lot of luck. Park visitors will be good Samaritans, sticking around with them until we can get them back inside.”
After check-in, it’s time to eat. How the animals are fed depends on the season. The sheep and goats are allowed to graze free-range during late spring and summer, and they average around 8-12 pounds of grass every day. They also enjoy other plants in the pasture, including clover and dandelions.
In the fall when the grass in the pasture has stopped growing for the season, volunteers lay out hay for them. By the winter, they eat hay almost exclusively. Going through about a half bale each day, the farmstead uses 150-200 bales of hay over the winter and early spring.
There are also a couple of animals that have a prescribed amount of grain they eat per day. “Usually it’s to keep the weight on for older animals,” says Ross. “What we feed them is called lamb grower grain, which is typically for lambs, but it has a higher protein content than what just grazing would give them.”
The grain can also be used as a vehicle for medication, which some of the animals take to ease arthritis.
Cleaning is another important part of taking care of the farmstead animals. Water troughs in the barn and pasture are washed out and refilled as needed. The straw used for bedding in the barn also needs to be kept clean. Volunteers will help with spot-cleaning throughout the week, and Ross will occasionally take out all the bedding and refresh it with new straw, which takes a full day to complete. The farmstead goes through about 100 bales of straw throughout the year for bedding material.
Ross also helps look after the animals’ health. One concern he looks for is hoof rot. It originates from a bacteria in the ground that attaches to cracks in their hooves.
“It’s worse when it’s muddy out, so we try not to keep the ground too muddy by diverting rainwater. Keeping their hooves trimmed helps avoid hoof rot too,” Ross says.
“Another one of our main concerns is parasites,” Ross adds. “There are at least two visits from the vet a year – usually in the fall or spring – to help with testing for parasites and deworming if it’s necessary.” Vet visits cost a few hundred dollars per visit, totaling up to $2,500 each year.
Rising temperatures in the spring mean the sheep need to be sheared. The annual sheep shearing takes place at the end of April or the beginning of May and is normally an event open to the public. Sheep shearing not only allows the sheep to stay cool during the hotter months, but it also allows their wool to be collected and turned into yarn.
Shearing the entire flock of sheep takes all day. They use a technique known as blade shearing, which is the traditional style of shearing.
“It’s almost like two kitchen knives next to each other, like a pair of scissors,” Ross explains. And while it’s difficult to get the sheep on board at first, eventually they’re able to stay calm. Ross also takes measures beforehand to help make the sheep more comfortable during the process.
Ross says that the animals are the best thing about his job. “It’s kind of a calming thing just to watch the sheep out in the field grazing, getting to know them and their personalities. They have a very uncomplicated life, and they seem like they enjoy themselves.”