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If Wool Be Thy Care

as told to me by Lincoln Sheep breeder, John C. Lee
Leeland Farms, Highgate, Ontario, Canada

Printed in sheep! Magazine, November 1997, pages 12-13. Reprinted in The Shepherd, Volume 45, Number 9, September 2000, pages 11-13.

If wool be thy care, let not thy cattle go
Where bushes are, where burrs and thistles grow
Neither in too rank a pasture let them feed
And of the purest white select thy breed
Perchance a snowy ram thou dost behold
Select him not in haste as husband to thy fold
Yeah! Search his mouth and if a swarthy tongue
Beneath a humid palate hung
Reject him! Lest he darken all thy flock
And search out another from thy numerous stock...

(From the works of Roman poet Vergil (Virgil) in the Georgics, or Art of Husbandry, Book III, 29 B.C., as translated by poet laureate John Dryden, around 1697, and published by the Heritage Press, New York, 1953.)

The Fundamentals

I had the pleasure of meeting John C. Lee during the North American International Livestock Exposition, or NAILE, in Louisville KY, November of 1996. He had come down for the sheep show with Bill Guardhouse who was showing his fine Lincoln sheep. Since our sheep pens were adjacent, we naturally conversed. Not being a Lincoln breeder myself nor possessing any knowledge about the breed, my first impression of this man was that he was highly respected by the other Lincoln breeders present, including Bill Guardhouse. His opinion seemed extremely valuable and his knowledge endless.

John was quite taken with one of my black Karakul ewes and asked if he could get a look at her. As he entered the pen and caught the ewe he recited a couple of lines from a poem. His voice, so soft and almost musical, went over the words like a well-worn page of a favorite book. Search the mouth and if a swarthy tongue, beneath a humid palate hung... Yes, the ewe had a black mouth. When asked to repeat the lines he started at the beginning, If wool be thy care, let not thy cattle go, where bushes are, where burrs and thistles grow... What a beautiful passage. It haunted me so that I later wrote to John and asked about it. John, now 78 years old, responded, "The poem I remember was given to me by my father to learn when I was a small boy. That is quite a few years ago. My father was a man who believed in and adhered to 'the fundamentals' of livestock breeding. It was imperative that I had to memorize not only the poem but what it meant."

The poem composed in Latin is just a small part of the original work of the Roman poet Vergil (70-19 B.C.). John's father, Herbert M. Lee, had said these few lines were from the 3rd book of The Georgics, or Art of Husbandry, written 29 years before Christ! With the help of his nephew John, who is also a poet, we were able to determine that a georgic is a poem written on the theme of agriculture and farming; the name George means farmer in Latin. Vergil's Georgics belongs to the didactic or instructional tradition in poetry, but it was much more. To Vergil, it was an opportunity to compose a poem in praise of Italy and it ends with a patriotic reference to the defeat of Mark Anthony. According to nephew John, "The best translation into English of The Georgics from the Latin was achieved by the English poet John Dryden (1631-1700). Dryden called The Georgics 'the best poem of the best poet.' His translation (around 1697) is considered to be most magnificent, perhaps because he was himself a brilliant poet and his translation was a poem in its own merit." So, how has this poem affected the Lee family?

The Lincoln Sheep

And of the purest white select thy breed... The Lee family has been raising purebred white Lincoln Sheep since 1889; however, according to a diary kept by John's Grandmother Lee, sheep have been on the farm since 1851. John believes they were Lincolns but there is no proof. Records indicate the flock at Leeland Farms used a purebred Lincoln ram in the year 1889. His pedigree is in Volume 1 of the National Lincoln Sheep Breeders Association Flock Book published in Marlette, Michigan in 1891. Of the first few sheep recorded in this book is one called Nancy Lee, another Nellie Pomeroy and another Bill Baker.
Lincoln Ewes
Lincoln Ewes

According to John "George Lee, my father's oldest brother, married Dr. Dan Pomeroy's daughter. Dr. Pomeroy lived right across the road from us. Bill Baker was an over imbibing English shepherd well acquainted with the Lee family about the time of our first registered Lincoln sheep. In fact he had been a shepherd for Joe Brocklebank, a prominent breeder of Lincoln Sheep in England. My father, knowing Mr. Baker was going back to England, had him pick out and send a ram to us as part of a shipment being sent to the Robsons of Denfield. Shortly after the turn of the century, my father bought Lincoln sheep in England and took them to the Argentine Republic before taking over this farm. Dad died in 1966 a few days short of 90 years and my mother had died in 1955."

John's grandfather, John Lee and his sons, showed Lincolns at the International Livestock Exposition in Chicago, Illinois from 1910 to 1971 when foot and mouth disease broke out in Alberta, Canada. All cloven hoofed animals were barred from entry into the USA from Canada. The resulting insufficient show entries due to the quarantine of the Lincolns and Cotswolds allowed the addition of two new breeds to the Exhibition, the Corriedale and Columbia.

The Ram

Perchance a snowy ram thou dost behold, select him not in haste as husband to thy fold... When asked how he selects a ram for his flock John quickly states that while breed-type is extremely important there are other factors to consider. Ram lambs should be avoided if possible, a two year old is best, but if you know what to look for a yearling would do. Then he would ask to see the dam and try to pick a time when she was nursing lambs; mothering ability as well as milking ability should be a priority.

According to the modern-day pioneer sheep genetic conservationist Lyle McNeal of Logan Utah (sheep! Magazine, January 1993) "Genetically speaking, the ram is half the flock. When you buy a ram you're buying genetics. It's the cheapest way to improve your flock. Since wool traits are highly inheritable, buying the right ram can benefit the offspring for generations." He goes on to say "It's important to get the right inheritable traits because those traits can quickly be implanted in your flock." He also warns that "the wrong ram can be the quickest way to destroy a flock ... it may take several generations to remove an undesirable trait."

John agrees and adds that sometimes a ram can have even more influence on the flock. Selecting top quality animals can become an art form, it's hard to explain, maybe it's intuition or even a tingling when an experienced eye can pick out a certain individual in a flock as they run across the barnyard, and knows to take a closer look.

Yeah! Search his mouth, and if a swarthy tongue beneath a humid palate hung, reject him! Lest he darken all thy flock... Perhaps wool breed shepherds would do well to look in the mouth of their sheep, maybe not for the same reasons nor to the same end as the Lee family, but as a way to determine purity: heterozygous (hetero- other or different) vs. homozygous (homo- same or like) genes for color. Many of the breed registries, besides the Natural Colored Wool Growers Association, recognize natural colored animals and even those termed 'white black-factored'. White animals with pure light colored or pink mouths might indicate homozygous white genes (the Lee family goal), while white animals with so-called 'swarthy' tongues (dark or spotted mouths) would indicate the presence of genes for color or heterozygous color traits. Breeders of Karakul sheep are encouraged by their registry, the American Karakul Sheep Registry, to record mouth and tongue colors when evaluating the new born lamb for registration purposes. So if you are looking to 'darken all thy flock' select rams with solid dark mouths, go ahead and 'Search his mouth'....

The Karakul Connection

My interest peaked when John spoke of years ago shipping Lincoln rams to Lowry Hagerman's ranch outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was sometime after John returned from being at sea with the Royal Navy and the Royal Canadian Navy during the War (1942-1945). They built wooden crates for the rams, took them to Port Huron, Michigan, where they were loaded onto railroad cars and shipped to New Mexico. Lowry Hagerman and his wife, along with their two sons Bud and Ted wanted to do some work in cross-breeding the Navajo sheep for the US Indian projects. Lowry also used the rams on his own large flock of Karakul sheep, hoping to decrease tail size and increase fleece luster and body size without losing the characteristic 'Persian Lamb' pelts.

John remembers being on the Hagerman ranch, which was a little east and south of Santa Fe: "...we left the highway, turning to the right, and followed across the country in tracks where others had traveled--no roads--until we came to a hacienda-type house, adobe built, with a built-in oven in the living room and tapestry on the walls. The ceiling was poles laid in a herringbone pattern and there were doors opening onto a central courtyard. A shallow dry stream bed ran between his hacienda and another. I was back again a few years later and there had been a flash flood that had washed quite a gully between the two houses and it had uncovered several pieces of petrified wood. There was a main line of a telephone-telegraph system that ran across the ranch. There were ruts in the ground that had been made by the first wagon trains on their way to California and others going from Santa Fe south to Mexico".

In The End

Sadly the big black barns of Leeland Farms may go the way of others just down the road; to be bull-dozed down and burned. As John says, there is no one to carry on. The great herd of Short-horned cattle is gone, as are the pigs. The flock of beautiful white Lincoln sheep is getting smaller and they have lived history. And what will be our loss? Perhaps just memories of how life evolved, or just the heritage of the Lincoln breed in this nation, or maybe what is truly important in life. Meeting John Lee makes me wonder what stories I'll be able to tell when I'm in my 78th year. Will we still be adhering to the 'fundamentals of livestock breeding' as told by the poet Vergil in 29 B.C. and shepherd John Lee in 1997. I hope so and I certainly hope someone takes the time to ask...

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