Maple Ridge Sheep Farm Features Old Breeds, New Technology

People / Jul. 22, 2010 1:28pm EDT

By Mary Margaret Breed

“The hills are allliive…with the sound of muussic…” of lambs gong “maaaa,” ewes answering “baaaa,” in the spring breezes, under the silent authority of Hazen the Boss Llama.

This is corny and over-romanticizes the hard work of farm life, but the melody insists its way into the brain on a perfect June day on Maple Ridge, where Randolph, Braintree, and Roxbury come together along Connecticut Corners Road.

From Tuthill and Linda Doane’s dooryard overlooking the Braintree Range, the vista includes their distant flock of Shetland sheep and the tall, hovering form of the llama charged with keeping the creatures safe from coyotes and herding them from pasture to pasture on cue from their shepherd.

These Shetlands are of an ancient breed, an “unimproved” strain that has not been bred for more meat or fluffier wool or faster maturation. They are the direct descendants of flocks brought to the islands of the North Sea many centuries ago and tended mostly by Vikings, the U.K.’s Shetlands and Orkneys having once been dominated by Norway.

The Doanes’ original flock came to Maple Ridge by way of Canada a couple of decades ago when the couple started their livestock operation. They wanted hardy sheep that would thrive on grass, didn’t need much supplementary grain, and could consistently and successfully bear their lambs without much assistance or drama.

Linda also preferred Shetlands over other breeds for their fine, soft, durable wool. “Merino, for example, is fine and soft, but less durable than Shetland,” she told me.

Her German grandmother had taught her to work with wool as a child. “I’d always knitted, crocheted, and spun wool. I wanted to control the whole operation by producing the wool,” she explained.

Green Mountains

Maple Ridge Sheep Farm was hewn from 90 acres of forest and sprang from the imaginations and vision of Tut and Linda, both born and raised near New York City – Linda in Brooklyn not far from Shea Stadium, home of the Jets, some of whom lived in her neighborhood.

“We happened to be born in the wrong place, but we remedied that as soon as we could,” Linda recalled with a laugh.

The two met as youngsters in, of all places, a hospital emergency room, during a Christmas season. Tut was there with his father, who was having a heart problem. Linda had been brought there by her mother, who thought her teenaged daughter was sick, not knowing Linda had merely overindulged at a holiday party, as inexperienced teenagers have been known to do.

Once married, Tut and Linda farmed on Long Island, which, back in the days before suburban sprawl, had a lot of potato fields and some small farms.

Both their families had camped in Vermont as they were growing up. They were drawn to the Green Mountains to farm and raise their two sons, and shopped for land until they found a high site off Thresher Road which they cleared and called Maple Ridge for the trees that surrounded it.

As much as they prize the ancient qualities of their heritage sheep, Tut and Linda have embraced cutting edge technology to enhance their business.

In the same outbuilding that houses Linda’s yarn stash (and one incredibly soft llama fleece) and Tut’s machine shop is the computer room where they sell meat, handwoven blankets, handspun yarn, sheep, and other products online, and write their extensive and detailed web narrative on the art of raising Shetlands.

“We were going to write a book. Then we realized how much more control we’d have over the project if we published our information online, which we began doing in 1996,” Linda said. And it’s editable and updatable. To find it just Google Maple Ridge Sheep Farm.

Outrageous Chili

Even though every animal is given its own name—“Razzmatazz,” “Wooly-Bear”—this place belongs to a practical farm family

So how many times a week does the Doane family dine on lamb? a visitor asks.

“Almost never,” answered the family cook. “It’s too valuable.”

If they have lamb available they sell it. But they do eat a lot of mutton, the meat of older sheep, usually from animals who have reached the end of their breeding life or been culled from the herd for one reason or another.

“With long, slow cooking, it’s delicious, and lends itself to a lot of different recipes,” Linda said. “It makes outrageous chili, curries, stews. Legs can be smoked. I use many ethnic variations.

“I asked the grandchildren what they wanted for Easter dinner and they said, ‘Grandma you haven’t made sauerbraten in a while’, so we had sauerbraten on Easter.”

For son Berend’s wedding the crowd feasted on five 8-to-10-year-old ewes which had just been put down.

Raising livestock is a work in progress, with frequent experimentation to determine best practices. Trials with grasses led them to seed a nourishing Kentucky blue grass, and to encourage the native Vermont dandelions, “which are 35% protein,” Linda said. While some shepherds move their flocks to new pasture daily, she finds the animals stay calmer when moved weekly.

Close friendships form among sheep, she said.

“There’s no question the older moms coach the younger ones through their first birthings.” About half the ewes typically deliver twins. Their flock of 130 is self-sustaining, having steadily replaced themselves over the years.

The flock is about evenly divided between males and females. “Rams produce a larger, heavier fleece, not having the production drag of bearing lambs,” Linda noted.

The rams, too, are gregarious. Rams and ewe/lamb pairs are pastured separately except in the fall breeding season. Additionally they started out housing rams separately from each other for fear of aggression. “But it turned out when they were trying to butt down the fences it was because they wanted to hang out together,” Linda laughed.” And if you put them in with lambs they will assign one ram to babysit and protect the lamb.”

They have a sawmill for the fencing and Tut machines and creates in metal. In his shop he also produces a ceiling-fastener device of his own invention that, in normal economic times, brings in a stream of orders from builders.

Civic Affairs

They’ve been active in civic affairs, Tut serving for years as Braintree town meeting moderator, and they have been instrumental in the “Sixth Grade Challenge” an athletic field event for students of Braintree, Randolph, and Brookfield.

Schoolchildren often visit the farm and get to help with ear-tagging and other activities, and the Doanes participate in the Farm to School program with Randolph elementary.

They look forward to the 2011 annual meeting of the Shetland Sheep Breeders Association, which will be held on their farm and include spinning and knitting workshops in conjunction with the White River Craft Center. This meeting will mark the 25th anniversary of the arrival of Shetland sheep in the U.S.

Maple Ridge Sheep Farm is a dream fulfilled, but nobody’s dream comes true all in peaches and cream. There’s a poured foundation that may someday be “our dream house,” Linda said, but life intervened and the dream house lies in the future. Meantime, they and their rescue dogs occupy the comfortable farmhouse in which they raised their family.

But despite the hard work, the beauty of the place is far from lost on its proprietors. Linda put it this way: “Our sheep get fat on the scenery.”

Return to top