It was a very cold winter on the Oregon ranch where our sheep live. There was enough snow to have kept the sheep pent up in the barn–a cozy place that can be boring after a long spell. During the cold weather months “baa” sounds like their way of saying “brrr” or, perhaps, a short version of “bah, humbug.” It was another strange winter everywhere–snowy in places usually untouched by freezing weather. I guess we will all just have to be prepared for more surprising winters!
The ranch has had sheep grazing on their natural range lands for decades. Their handsome flock is the breed called Poll (meaning hornless) Rambouillets. This breed of sheep also known as the Rambouillet Merino or the French Merino, originated with Spain’s famed Merino flocks, which were known from the earliest times as producers of the world’s finest wool. The Spanish government was so protective of their Merino flocks that any exportation was forbidden.
This policy changed in 1786, however, when France’s Louis XVI purchased 359 Spanish Merinos from his cousin, King Charles III of Spain, to help improve the stock of native French sheep. The sheep were sent to Louis’ Rambouillet estate near Paris where, according to government records, they have been bred since 1801.
First imported to the United States in 1840, the breed was selectively bred to meet the needs of a large class of U.S. sheep producers. Rambouillets prevail on the western ranges, where two-thirds of the sheep of the United States are produced.
White-faced with wool on the legs, the Rambouillet is the largest of the fine-wool breeds, rugged, adaptable to a wide variety of arid range conditions, has a well-developed flocking instinct and is long lived. The breed also has an extended breeding season and produces a high-quality, fine-wool fleece which is highly prized for extremely white–almost free of dark fiber.
At maturity, ewes weigh from 150 to 200 pounds, while the rams are between 250 and 300 pounds (comparable to the LA Rams defensive linemen).
The mama Rambouillets–the ewes–are extremely motherly, a characteristic endearing them to farmers. They lamb early and generally raise two sets of lambs each year, with multiple births not uncommon. The mothers produce abundant milk of excellent quality, and have a nurturing sense in the way they care for their young that is missing in some breeds. As a result of the strong maternal care and highly nutritious milk they provide, their lambs thrive and grow more quickly than those of other breeds.
To insure maximum fiber length, the sheep are sheared only once a year, in either March or April. If the spring is mild, the shearing is done as soon as possible, since the lambs can find the ewe’s udder easier to reach without the barrier of her heavy coat! Shearing is not for the untrained. It requires a strong, steady hand and keen young eyes to do the job right without nicking the delicate skin beneath the wool.