Jeanne Sager | Democrat
IRIS GILLINGHAM FEEDS her Scottish Blackface sheep, Susana.
Carrying on her Scottish heritage
By Jeanne Sager
YOUNGSVILLE There was no doubt Susana would fit in at Wild Roots Farm.
Sure she’s a sheep.
But this ewe isn’t just any sheep.
She’s a Scottish Blackface, one of more than a dozen heritage breeds of sheep awarded to winners in this year’s Youth Conservationist Program at the Sheep and Wool Festival in Maryland.
It was at the festival earlier this month where Susana met her new family, the Gillinghams of Youngsville.
A family that delights in their Scottish heritage, visiting the Scottish Games in Connecticut every year, with children named in the Scottish tradition (Iris Fen and Roan), with kilts for every member of the family, they were a perfect fit.
It was Iris, 9, who found an essay contest in the March 4-H News out of Cornell Cooperative Extension, offering county kids a chance at a contest for kids from Michigan to North Carolina.
“I wasn’t expecting to win, I just thought it would be a cool thing to do!” Iris said. “I thought it would be fun.”
She sat down and penned four pages of careful cursive writing, sharing with the contest’s administration in Ohio the story of her parents’ farm in Youngsville and her four years in 4-H.
Applicants were given the option of choosing a heritage breed they found interesting or leaving it open.
For Iris, there was no question.
She wanted a Scottish Blackface.
“My ancestors are from Scotland, and I would love to learn more about my heritage by raising Scottish Blackface sheep,” Iris explained in her essay.
But it was the sentence at the end of her essay that dad Wes thinks was the clincher: “I wonder what it will be like when the Scottish Blackface sheep see our Scottish Highland cows!”
Although some of the heritage breeds in the contest are rare on a global scale, Scottish Blackface are common in Scotland, where they make up the majority of the country’s sheep.
In America, though, they stand out from the flocks with the characteristic dark patches across the snout.
The Youth Conservationist Program aims to make them and the other breeds in the project an every day sight, by awarding ewes to aspiring shepherds kids like Iris.
Winning comes with rules on how to promote the breed. Iris will be required to show the sheep at fairs twice in the coming year (the County Youth Fair does not allow for sheep with horns, but the Gillinghams are working to find spots where Iris can show).
She has to make a product from the wool of her sheep too, something Iris already knows how to do thanks to her mom’s flock of Icelandic sheep.
Home-schooled with her brother, Iris spends time carding, spinning, weaving and knitting as part of her education. The essay for this program was something mom Amy worked into the home school program too she practiced writing, practiced penmanship.
She’ll be practicing math this year as she keeps a farm accounting book on Susana, calculating the costs of food against the revenues of selling woolen products.
There will hopefully be lambs to sell too. Another condition of the program is that winners help propagate the breed, and the Gillinghams purchased a ram at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival so Susana can be bred.
“It was her momentum,” Amy said of Iris’ involvement in the program. “As a homeschooled student, the enthusiasm has to come from them, and this was really her. She understood the terms, understood she was going to have to work.”
The program allows kids to see their hard work from writing the essay to working with their sheep pay off.
And the heritage breeds in particular teach the kids a mix of history and their place in the world.
Because while Iris delights in playing with Susana and training her to walk on a lead, while she looks forward to playing with the lambs (her favorite part of shepherding), she’s also carrying on a tradition.
Susana was donated to the program by a former winner of the Youth Conservationist Program, a teenager who won her own Scottish Blackface and wanted to introduce another 4-Her to the breed.
Iris has the same plan to donate back a Scottish Blackface lamb for a future 4-Her.
But she won’t just be celebrating the heritage breeds.
She’ll be celebrating her heritage.