George Washington wasn’t sheepish about his love of sheep. In fact, America’s first president was quite proud of the fluffy four-legged animals he raised as a gentleman farmer at Mount Vernon in the mid-18th century. In a letter, he called them the livestock “in which I most delight.”
Today, visitors to the historic estate can see animals representing those that would have been present during Washington’s life, such as horses, hogs and chickens.
Other attention-getters are just a stone’s throw from Washington’s former home. Take a short walk from the main house, and you’ll probably find a crowd gathered around a fence — oohing, awwing . . . and shouting, “Baaah!”
There, enclosed in a paddock and a fenced field, are more than a dozen sheep — one of five locations on the 500-acre property where an estimated 70 sheep are kept. They snooze. They munch alfalfa and grass. Sometimes they clunk heads. A couple of them are black, some are white or brown, others have spots.
Called Hog Island sheep, the breed lived on the Virginia barrier island for which they were named more than 200 years ago. The present-day sheep, first brought to Mount Vernon in 1990, symbolize the type Washington may have raised.
Washington’s sheep, which once numbered as many as 1,000, were useful in several ways. In addition to being a food source, they provided wool that was made into blankets and poop that was used to fertilize crops.
Nowadays, says Mount Vernon director of horticulture Dean Norton, “a day in the life of a sheep is pretty sweet.” No longer used for food, the sheep mostly lounge around and delight tourists, some of whom watch the shearing of their wool coats in May. The sheep are also bred by Mount Vernon so the rare Hog Island variety doesn’t die out. Most of the lambs (baby sheep) born this spring have been sold to private farmers and other historic sites to begin more flocks.
On March 4, three lambs — the first of more than 50 expected — were born. Often born as twins and weighing five to nine pounds, most will arrive by the end of the month. In years past, lambs were named according to themes — such as “Harry Potter” characters (including Hermione and Hagrid). This time, Mount Vernon is taking public suggestions on its Facebook page (www.facebook.com/Historic MountVernon), with voting starting March 27. (Ask a parent to send in your suggestion.)
Don’t fret: The newbies won’t begin moving to their new homes until they’re at least 9 weeks old. Visitors can coo over them through May or virtually visit them through Mount Vernon’s “Lamb Cam” (www.mountvernon.org/the-estate-gadens/lamb-cam), which will feature round-the-clock online footage when it launches April 15.
Too bad a video camera wasn’t around a few years ago, before the paddock pen had wire fencing. “We had a couple lambs wanting to see the mansion,” Norton says. “They walked on in.”
What: Sheep shearing at Mount Vernon.
Watch as sheep’s wool is removed with hand shears.
When: Friday-Sunday during May from 10 a.m. to noon and 1 to 3 p.m.
Where: Pioneer Farm site within George Washington’s Mount Vernon, 3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Highway, Alexandria, Virginia.
How much: Free with admission ($18 adults, $10 ages 6 to 11, age 5 and younger free; $1 discount per ticket with online purchase.)
For more information: A parent can go to www.mountvernon.org.