Know Your Fiber: Lydia's Flock
Posted on January 01 2019
We are starting out this year’s Know Your Fiber articles with a look at Lydia’s Flock, a local flock of Icelandic and Shetland sheep kept right here in Whatcom County by local shepherd, Lydia Strand. If you have not yet been to an open house or other event out at Lydia’s farm, we recommend putting it at the top of your to-do list. Located just outside Bellingham, WA, Lydia raises her flock of Shetland and Icelandic sheep using regenerative agricultural practices intended to ensure both the health of the sheep and that of the land. Once you arrive at the farm and head out to see the sheep, you will pass by Darla, the resident pot-belly “yard pig,” the free-ranging flock of chickens and a couple of steer calves. As you continue along the fence past the garden plot that will be growing dye plants come spring, you will almost certainly come upon Curtis, the Lambassador, who will be one of the first of the flock to greet you. Although not all the sheep may want to approach, do not be surprised if you find that you become surrounded lambs “giving you the hoof” and vying for your attention! You will also get to see the flock’s Great Pyrenees guard dogs, Miren and Beau. You might catch them napping, since these adorable, gigantic pups spend a lot of time resting and sleeping during the day; their job is to be up and alert during the night, keeping an eye out for any predators unwise enough to bother the flock. How did Lydia get so lucky as to have this idyllic farm? Lots of curiosity, creativity, persistence, and patience… as well as oodles of hard work.
Lydia’s forays into agriculture began back in 2008, when she and her family began keeping chickens in her south Seattle home’s backyard. Soon, they added raised beds to grow their own vegetables, and it was not long before they became involved with a couple members of the Seattle Farm Co-op. These Co-op members had plans to work with the South Seattle Community College to keep a flock of sheep in an 80-acre orchard, but it was unfortunately just unable to happen. Instead, the sheep intended for the orchard were kept by a neighbor who had a couple of acres. Lydia’s curiosity was piqued, and she soon began to actively seek out opportunities to learn about shepherding, which brought her to the New Moon Farm Goat Rescue and Sanctuary. There she met Ellen Felsenthal, took a Sheep and Goats 101 class, and got her very first Shetland sheep, Clover.
Soon she had two sheep living in her backyard, Clover and her companion Thistle, a black Welsh Mountain ewe. Lydia and her husband started taking courses on farming and ranching from the local Washington State University (WSU) extension and began making connections with other shepherds. Settling on Icelandic and Shetland sheep as the breeds she was interested in raising, Lydia began looking for places she might keep them. Although she did not have access to her own acreage in Seattle (besides, of course, her backyard), she soon came up with a solution. Looking around her neighborhood, she found a number of undeveloped parcels. Using a property map to determine who owned the parcels, she simply asked the owners if she could use their land to graze her sheep… and each and every one said yes! With portable electric fencing and solar chargers, she created space for her own urban flock. Getting her first Icelandic sheep from a breeder on Whidbey Island, she soon had the first lambs from her flock in 2011. Lydia’s Flock had its start.
Over the next several years, Lydia continued to expand her knowledge, and began to get ever more involved in the fiber community. Moving to Minnesota in late 2013 brought her in touch with the Three Rivers Fibershed (an affiliate of the Northern California Fibershed), a community of small farms involved in producing fiber within 175 miles of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, all of whom are committed to using methods that benefit both the soil and sheep. Raising her flock in Minnesota for a little over four years, Lydia became intimately involved with the fiber community there. Lydia made strong connections in Minnesota with the Fibershed organization and the broader fiber arts community. However, she and her husband missed the Northwest, and in July of 2018, Lydia and her flock decided to move back. Looking around the Salish Sea area for a place to call home, Lydia settled on Whatcom County. Finding a farm out in the county, Lydia and her flock have settled in to call our area home.
Lydia raises her sheep a little differently than some of the larger, more industrial farms out there – she views the health of the land as being just as important as the health of her sheep. This means that she focuses on using regenerative agricultural practices that help sequester carbon. Practicing shepherding this way can look different, depending on where the sheep are being raised. In northwestern Washington, though, it means that planning for each year’s grazing season starts late in the year, during September. This is because the rains here during the winter months, which creates a muddy situation where the plants making up the pasture are more vulnerable to being trampled into the mud or simply being torn up by grazing sheep. To ensure the health of the plants’ roots, and to avoid exposing too much of the soil, the sheep are moved into winter housing or sacrifice areas, which allows the plants to continue to grow and establish healthy roots before becoming dormant for the winter. What, you ask, do the sheep eat if they are not grazing out in the pasture? Local or Eastern Washington hay is their primary source of food, supplemented with the occasional treats of barley, sunflower seeds, or alfalfa pellets. Coupled with a free choice loose mineral mix, these foods make for happy and healthy sheep in the absence of fresh graze from the pasture.
Come spring, as soon as the pasture moisture levels allow and the plants are starting their early rapid growth spurt, the sheep are moved out to begin their pasture rotations. Raising sheep using these practices means constantly monitoring the pasture, as well as the sheep. During grazing season, the sheep are moved to a new section of pasture every 2-3 days, which helps maintain the soil’s health by ensuring that over-grazing doesn’t occur. As the sheep graze, they fertilize the soil, which in turn grows healthy plants for them to eat down the line. Plus, it is important that the sheep get to move around – they are animals that have evolved to move from place to place as they graze, which naturally keeps their internal parasite load lower, and moving them to new pasture frequently is simply in line with their natural inclinations. Keeping her sheep healthy also means that Lydia does not intervene in weaning the lambs before they are naturally ready, nor does she use alternative “creep feeds” to separate them from their mothers earlier than would be natural. This means that her lambs grow quickly and strongly, and create important community bonds with, as Lydia calls it, their “sheeple.” And more lambs are on the way soon! Now that Lydia has settled in, she is ready to grow her flock. She has bred 32 of her ewes for the 2019 lambing season, which means around 60 new lambs are expected this March and April.
Here at Northwest Yarns we are thrilled to sell yarn and wool ready for spinning from Lydia’s Flock. The sheep raised by Lydia have some of the softest and most lustrous Shetland and Icelandic wool we have encountered. Those of you who have worked with Shetland and Icelandic wool know that, while durable and beautiful, the wool from these sheep is frequently quite coarse. Get ready for a different experience with wool from this local flock! While not as super fine as some Merino wools, we would place much of the yarn from Lydia’s Flock in the medium-fine to medium range of fiber. Of course, unlike yarns from industrial farms which are quickly homogenized by entering a large wool pool, some variations in texture can occur depending on the season, the year, or even the individual sheep. This is one of the things we love about yarns from Lydia’s Flock – you are guaranteed a yarn and crafting experience that is unique and limited to the sheep, the season, and the year during which the sheep was sheared. Each of Lydia’s Flock yarns and fibers are identified by the single sheep or family group who produced them, and each custom blend of wool from those sheep is expertly combined to create the ideal yarn for your next project.
With Lydia’s Flock, the sheep and the land come first. When you use yarn or fiber from Lydia’s flock, you know that the wool you are using comes from sheep that are loved and local. You are not only supporting and investing in a local shepherd, but you are also supporting agricultural and environmental practices that are transparent and that support environmental health.
Want to get your hands on some of this amazing yarn and fiber? Stop by the shop here in Bellingham, WA, or check it out on our website at www.nwyarns.com. Interested in knowing more about Lydia’s Flock and their events? Check out the farm’s website, too, at www.lydiasflock.com and Instagram at @lydias_flock. Happy crafting!