Ark of Taste
Hog Island Sheep
Hog Island sheep are distinguished by their hardiness, maternal ability and ability to forage, a result of free range living for nearly 100 years. They are a breed that is mainly found along the Eastern Shore of the United States, and particularly the barrier islands off Virginia. Many Hog Island sheep are diminutive in size and have coarse wool, light fleece and the ability to survive almost entirely without care and shelter. With better husbandry and selection, the sheep have become larger in size. It has been observed by some owners that the sheep consume less water than sheep of similar size. This is thought to be an adaptation to lack of fresh water within the Hog Island environment. These animals are highly adaptable, somewhat salt tolerant and do well in wet conditions. Hog Island sheep are somewhat higher strung than most domestic breeds and very watchful. Typically, these sheep keep in very tight flocks.
The legs and face are devoid of wool. Sheep of both sexes may be horned or polled, differing from flock to flock; when present, the horns are an open spiral pattern. The males seem to not be fully polled but rather have scurs, which may grow to 1-2” if they are not broken. The females are truly polled. At maturity, males weigh 57-60 kg, and females 41-45 kg. Males measure 66-71 cm tall at the withers, and females 61-71 cm. The breed is usually white-wooled, but up to 20% of sheep have black wool. Faces and legs may be all black or mottled with white, brown and black.
Unique among the sheep varieties, the Hog Island is best suited for processing as hogget (between one and two years of age) as opposed to lamb. It has a much cleaner taste than traditional lamb and mutton, and is sweet with an herbal grassy finish. It is tasty well into older age, fending off the strong “muttony” flavor of older sheep. Its meat is also well suited for slow cooking.
According to Eastern Shore historian Bernard Herman, “Hog Island Sheep, the remnant flock of a much larger population formally kept on the barrier islands of Virginia from Assateague to the southernmost tip of the Eastern Shore of Virginia, ran free until the end of twentieth-century when the last animals were corralled and removed to the mainland. That action concluded a distinctive sheep husbandry that had flourished on the Eastern Shore since at least the mid-1600s and was the object of curiosity from the late 1800s on.”
In the 1930s, a series of strong storms battered the coast of Virginia, and by 1945 the residents had completely abandoned Hog Island leaving a number of sheep behind. The sheep that remained on the island developed thrived and developed a desire to browse rather than graze, similar to goats. In 1974, the Nature Conservancy took ownership of the Island and proceeded to remove the sheep over the next 4 years. Because of their important place in Colonial history, and uniqueness as a breed, many of the remaining sheep became part of living history museums across the east coast including Colonial Williamsburg, Plymouth Plantation, Washington’s Birthplace, and the Museum of American Frontier Culture. Other than through a small handful of private breeders, the use of the Hog Island Sheep as a food product was lost.
There are currently fewer than 200 known breeding stock in the world, and are classified as “critical” on the Livestock Conservancy’s “conservation priority list.” Even today, they are underappreciated because of their slow growing nature. As with many historic livestock breeds, they are at risk not just because they are rare, but because they have not had access to a proper market for over eighty years. Because numbers are so low, the largest existing flocks have mainly been kept for breed conservation at historic sites such as Mt. Vernon and Colonial Williamsburg. The few animals that have been available for use as a meat product have been limited to households or small gatherings. It is not until 2015 that they became available to the wider public.