BOOK EXCERPT: Sheep, Shepherd & Land, by Anna Hunter

22 March 2023
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Corriedale and Dog Tale Ranch

We visited Arlette Seib’s farm in Watrous, Saskatchewan, on a sweltering July day. Everything about the landscape and the lonely single-lane highway screamed Saskatchewan prairie land. There were miles of wheat, barley, and canola fields under a sky that never seemed to end.

Excerpt from Sheep, Shepherd & Land, by Anna Hunter. 
Nine Ten Publications, April 2023. 

Text copyright Anna Hunter
Photos copyright Christel Lanthier 

The directions to her farm were, like most rural navigation, endearing and obscure: “At the Co-op Agro Centre, turn west and cross the railroad tracks. Immediately turn north and follow the curve back to the west again. Travel this grid road for twenty-four kilometres until you reach a Yield sign…” It reminded me of how fancy phones and built-in car GPS systems don’t hold a candle to the internal compass that I’ve forgotten how to use.

When we finally pulled into Arlette’s mile-long driveway, it was an obvious departure from the monoculture crop farmland that had been the backdrop for the rest of our road trip. This is a farm that has been cared for and stewarded with a passion for species diversity and animal and ecological health. Arlette started the tour of her farm with a walk to a stunning view at the top of a rolling hill that she uses for fall grazing. It was breathtaking. Vibrant and full of life, the collective hum of insects could be heard over the incessant chattering of birds. The field was a fragrant mix of clover, alfalfa, fescue, Canadian thistle, and other grasses. The way Arlette spoke about the land made it clear that she genuinely cares about every species that calls it home.

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The land didn’t always look this wild. Arlette told the story of how, when she and her spouse, Allen, moved onto this 1600-acre conventional grain farm seventeen years earlier, it was a struggle to make the farm work. Arlette recalled of those first few years. “It’s hard to believe that we were doing this for mother nature, ’cause it [conventional farming] was continually ripping into the soil; it was continually applying chemicals; it was continually taking something off the land, and we were struggling with ‘does this even work?’”

They finally decided they weren’t going to do it anymore. They turned the farm back to grassland and sold all the expensive farming equipment that was keeping them beholden to the banks. They developed a new plan and began working with Ducks Unlimited to develop conservation easements and restore the grassland to a diversified habitat for plants and animals.

Arlette didn’t initially envision sheep as a way to restore health to this grassland; the sheep arrived with a different purpose. Arlette had a border collie that she loved working with and decided to get a few sheep for the dog to work. She built a “rickety little fence” around the yard and bought five sheep. Her flock grew from there.

The farm now has 380 breeding ewes, predominantly Corriedale and some Clun Forest. Corriedale sheep may seem, from afar, like any other flock grazing the vast ranges in the Canadian Prairies, but seen up close, their notable “top knot” fleece and gentle eyes set them apart from other fine wool breeds.

The Corriedale breed was developed in New Zealand in the 1880s as a dual-purpose breed. They were developed by breeding Merinos with Lincoln Longwool sheep. The goal was to develop a hardy animal that thrives in a range of conditions and provides excellent meat and wool. Corriedale sheep are a prominent breed in South America and can also be found in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, and the U.S.

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As we stopped and watched the ewes happily graze clover and alfalfa while their lambs ran or napped and occasionally called for their moms, Arlette explained that what makes her Corriedale sheep different from other breeds is their natural flocking inclination. Flocking is a survival instinct that tells animals they better stay together, or they will be in trouble. Arlette and her dogs move the sheep through the large eighty-acre grazing paddocks from May until October, and, like most true range breeds, the sheep thrive with minimal intervention.

As the name implies, range sheep are best suited for vast open ranges where they can spread out and graze during the day and then come back together at night. Corriedales are a hardy breed and can thrive on a variety of forages, making them an excellent breed choice for the open prairies of Saskatchewan.

Range sheep, when managed well, can be integral to keeping grasslands healthy. They eat grass and encourage growth of certain species while inhibiting the growth of undesirable species. They leave behind manure fertilizer, and they reduce fire risk by controlling overgrown grasses and shrubs. Although not her original intention, Arlette views her Corriedale sheep as an integral part of land management and the ecological health and biodiversity of her farm.

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Livestock guardian dog watches over the large flock of Corriedale sheep at Dog Tale Ranch, Saskatchewan.

It is clear that Arlette has a passion for the land and the animals, but her affection for wool took longer to develop. Arlette has been an artist for quite some time; drawing was her medium before she stumbled upon needle felting on the internet. She couldn’t believe that the beautiful images she found were created with wool—something she had in abundance.

Corriedale wool is versatile and reliable. It is fine enough to wear next to the skin and has an elasticity and resilience that makes it perfect for harder wearing items likes socks, sweaters, and blankets. Corriedale wool is often naturally white but can also be grey, black, or brown. Corriedale wool can be found commercially as yarn or fibre for spinning and is often used as the fibre for both wet- and needle-felting projects.

Arlette told me that one day, while she was out walking the range, she thought she would like to felt from her own flock of sheep. The flock was 500 head at the time and it seemed like a daunting task, but a year later she still couldn’t shake the idea. She decided to just start with one sheep. She has since created a felted project—a community that reflects her own flock, with over fifty sheep and other assorted characters that make up her diverse farm, including guard dogs, a magpie, and an inquisitive little fox. As she worked on this project, she reflected that this art could be a tool to connect community to the source of their wool.

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Arlette Seib’s felted flock.

“What a way to promote wool—this is the community of wool that it’s grown in. You can see it…this is the community your wool is grown in.”

All photos by Chirstel Lanthier.

Copyright © Anna Hunter except as indicated.
Anna Hunter holding two lambs.

About Anna Hunter

Anna Hunter is a first-generation sheep farmer and wool mill owner in Eastern Manitoba, Treaty One Territory. Anna, her husband Luke, and their two sons moved to Manitoba from Vancouver, BC, in 2015. She started a small sheep farm, raising Shetland sheep for their beautiful wool. In 2018 they established a small-scale wool processing mill – the only one of its kind in Manitoba. They process wool and fibre for themselves and other farmers. Anna is passionate about building community and connecting rural fibre farmers with urban consumers, fibre artists and crafters. Anna believes that regenerative agriculture and climate beneficial food and clothing is integral to moving forward as farmers, fibre artists and Canadians. To learn more about Anna and her farm/wool mill, check out longwayhomestead.com.

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