by Chloe Tibbits
(Editor’s note — The Youth Conservationist Program is a 20-year effort begun by Richard and Donna Larson of Culpeper, Va., to enable youth to participate in conserving heritage wool sheep breeds. For more information, see sidebar.)
I am part of the Youth Conservationist Program (YCP), a program that gives kids a farm experience and helps promote and preserve heritage sheep breeds. It is an excellent program for kids interested in raising animals.
I got started with the program last spring after a friend sent me information about YCP. I wrote an essay about why I should be entrusted with a sheep. My essay was accepted by Nancy Schmidt, a Tunis sheep breeder in Ohio. In May, my family and I traveled to the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival where I received my sheep from Schmidt.
The Tunis sheep is from Africa. They were very popular in the Colonial South, but during the American Civil War, they were virtually wiped out.
The YCP has a variety of different heritage breeds from different donors. Last year, not enough youth entered the competition and not all the available sheep found homes.
The YCP hopes this year will be different.
My sheep experience has been fun. When I got home with my 5-month-old lamb, Iona, I kept her in a small pen near my house and read books to her while she ate out of my lap.
Later, we moved Iona into a grassy area with a barn.
It’s important to note that participants in the YCP do not have to live on a farm. You just have to have some space to keep the sheep or have a friend who will allow you to raise it on their land.
We decided Iona was lonely, so we got two other Tunis sheep from Anna Rae Hodgins, one of the few Tunis breeders in North Carolina.
One of the requirements of the YCP is that you breed your ewe, so we borrowed a ram from her, too. We are waiting for lambs to be born this spring.
I have gotten a lot of sheep advice from my donor as part of the program. It’s great to have someone with decades of experience giving advice.
In August, I sheared Iona by hand. It took me more than five hours and an awful lot of sheep wrestling around the barnyard. Our other sheep watched in what must have been horrified fascination. I’m looking forward to using the wool I collected since I am also a knitter.
After shearing, I started training her to show her at the N.C. State Fair, another of the YCP requirements. Tunis are a tri-purpose breed. They can be used for meat, wool and milk. We decided to enter the meat competition at the Fair.
The meat division of livestock showing at the state fair is like the Miss America beauty pageant for sheep. Most people showing have been doing it for generations. We would not have made it if it hadn’t been for our friend, Faith, an old hand at sheep showing.
Iona and I didn’t place high in the show, but it was tons of fun and a great bonding time. Plus, the view of the fireworks from the livestock complex is great.
Things pretty much went back to normal after the fair, but once a month I host a nature-study club at my house. I’m teaching younger girls how to show sheep. Iona loves it.
My year training and caring for an animal that depends on me has helped make me responsible and gotten me interested in keeping heritage sheep breeds alive. My family is planning on starting a Tunis flock to introduce to Raleigh.
I want to inspire other kids to enter into the Youth Conservationist Program not only to promote and preserve heritage sheep, but also to give them a fun, growing experience to remember forever.
—Chloe Tibbits is a Wake Forest eighth grader.
Youth interested in applying for the 2016 Youth Conservationist Program need to be between 9 and 18 years old. If selected, youth must be present to receive the ewe at the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival May 8, 2016.
Participants must agree to exhibit the ewe at least twice in 2016 at: a county fair or local sheep show; and at the state fair in the state where the recipient lives. Participants must also agree to breed the ewe to a registered ram in the fall of 2016, and must agree to either use the ewe’s fleece to personally make a woolen item or sell the fleece to a spinner, felter, or weaver.
Finally, participants must submit a one- to two-page report, with pictures, to the donor breeder by April 30, 2017.
Applications from interested youth must be postmarked by April 1. In the application/essay the youth should describe themselves, their experience with animals, explain their interest in sheep, and answer the question, "Why would I like to help preserve a heritage breed of sheep?"
The total application/essay should be no more than two pages in length and must include address, phone and, if available, e-mail address. Applicants should indicate if they wish to be considered for a particular breed or any of the breeds available. Each applicant must also include a letter of recommendation from a 4-H advisor, FFA advisor, veterinarian, teacher, or member of the clergy.
Contact Elaine Ashcraft for an updated list of breeds available, and then submit the letter of application/essay to Elaine Ashcraft, 46118 CR 58, Coshocton, Ohio 43812 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.