GEORGETOWN, Del. — Four lambs grazed on the new spring grass at a farm here this week — little miracles in the preservation of a rare breed of sheep that scientists, historians and farmers like Laura Marie Kramer are working to protect.
These lambs are descendants of Hog Island sheep from the island off the Eastern Shore of Virginia. They are genetically distinct from all other known sheep. Small and hardy, they survived for years on the isolated barrier island — browsing and reproducing decades after their human caretakers moved off the island to escape storms and the harsh conditions of island life.
"They are a very hardy breed," said Lisa Pregent, the livestock manager at George Washington's Mount Vernon, just outside Washington, D.C.
At Mount Vernon and a small group of other farms, including La Belle Farms just outside Georgetown, people are working to preserve and expand the population of this sheep, which is known for its coarse wool.
It is one of two island breeds that are being raised at Mount Vernon to preserve rare and unique species. Pregent also cares for a collection of Ossabaw Island hogs that came from an island off the coast of Georgia. They are descendants of hogs brought to the New World by Spanish explorers.
Pregent said it is likely that early explorers brought livestock to the Americas and dropped them at barrier islands with the idea they would thrive, reproduce and be a source of food for future visits.
Overtime, the Hog Island sheep became genetically distinct.
The Livestock Conservancy, which works to save and build populations of heritage farm animals, found the sheep thrived on the small barrier island along with the people who lived there. The community had roads, it's own school and a church along with dozens of houses. The people who lived there made their livings off the water and the land.
Hog Island is one of a chain of barrier islands off the Eastern Shore of Virginia. There are no permanent residents living on the islands now. But at one time about 250 people lived on Hog Island. In the 1930s, a series of storms sent water and waves washing across the island. The residents started leaving, often taking everything they owned, including their homes and eventually, the small, white, clapboard church with them back to the mainland. By 1945, the residents of Hog Island had all moved to the mainland. They returned each spring to shear and notch their sheep, which roamed the island, feeding on the marsh hay.
When The Nature Conservancy bought Hog Island in 1974 — one of 14 barrier islands off the coast of Virginia they own, they removed the sheep, or at least they thought they did.
Four years later, they found a flock of sheep remained on the island. The last of the sheep were removed in 1978. According to the Livestock Conservancy, 10 rams and 23 ewes were sent to Virginia Tech. The scientists there were interested in how the sheep seemed to be resistant to internal parasites. It turned out they were less likely to have worms because they were isolated on an island.
After the year-long study, some of the sheep went to Mount Vernon and to private breeders.
Since then, the population has been growing but it is still considered critically low.
And that is where farmers like Kramer came in.
She and her husband specialize in heritage animals: the sheep and a flock of free-range heritage chickens. In addition, they grow flowers. They sell the flowers and their eggs at the Milton Farmer's Market.
"I knew I wanted to raise an endangered species," Kramer said.
So last July she bought three ewes — females — from Mount Vernon.
Then, earlier this year, she rented a ram from the historic farm, driving to Mount Vernon to pick him up to bring him back to Georgetown.
"The ewes took one look at him and ran away," she said.
But within days, they worked things out, she said.
Two of weeks ago, two of her ewes: each gave birth to twins. The third is due in May, she said. Her flock of three has more than doubled.
Three of her lambs are black, which is pretty rare for the breed.
Kramer said only about 10 percent of Hog Island sheep are black. She gave them historic names. There is Jefferson and Martha and Leslie Lee and Washington — two boys, two girls, so far.
As far as Kramer can tell, she is the only farmer in Delaware raising Hog Island Sheep.
Pregent said the hope is that by spreading the animals out among farmers and museum farmsteads, they will be able to build genetic diversity in the species and sustain the population.
While Washington probably didn't have Hog Island sheep at Mount Vernon, they are likely to be similar to the sheep a colonial plantation would have had, Pregent said. They are smaller than sheep raised on most farms today.
Kramer's three black lambs will probably stay black but her white and black spotted one may lose those spots as it grows up. About 80 percent of Hog Island sheep have creamy white wool.
The sheep are so rare they are considered an important part of the livestock gene pool.
A decade ago, scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, concerned about the genetic heritage of Hog Island sheep, preserved genetic material in their germplasm collection.
“When the feral sheep were removed from the island in the 1970s, they were removed from the selection pressure that had made them so adaptable to the harsh environment,” said Don Bixby, with the Animal Livestock Breeds Conservancy.
Kramer grew up on a dairy farm in Maryland. She and her husband purchased their farm in Georgetown in 2009.
"We decided we wanted to go with an endangered breed of sheep and started researching online," she said. "We've been really happy with them."
Follow Molly Murray on Twitter: @MollyMurraytnj.