Hands down, the coziest jacket I’ve seen all winter is the one sported by the flock of Shetland Sheep at Steve Oulman and Kate Schutt’s Howling Gale Farm near Big Twin Lake.
When I visited the farm, Giselle, Dahlia, Whitney, Roxie, Raven and the 19 other ewes took refuge behind the barn, but were eventually coaxed over to the fence by Steve and his economy-sized tub of Costco animal crackers. (It’s apparently the sheep’s favorite treat, nibbled daintily straight from Steve’s hand.) So it was at close range that I was able to observe the luxurious explosion of wool surrounding each sheep from neck to knee, a magnificent fleece 4 or 6 inches thick, not unlike Leonardo DiCaprio’s go-to outfit in “The Revenant.”
Steve and Kate moved from Oregon to the Methow in 2012 in order to nurture two specific passions: Nordic skiing (his) and farming (hers). Kate is a weaver, and had long wished to raise her own flock of wool-bearers: specifically, Shetland Sheep.
Shetland Sheep are a breed of small sheep brought to Scotland’s Shetland Islands more than a thousand years ago, imported into the United States via Canada in the 1980s, and introduced at Howling Gale Farm in 2014. Their wool is similar to merino, but slightly coarser. “They’re a relatively primitive breed,” says Kate, “very different than a commercial flock.”
The first year sheep-shearing time rolled around, Kate did it herself, with scissors. Since then, a professional shearer specializing in Shetland Sheep visits the farm each March and shears the sheep, leaving Kate with two dozen fleece weighing about 4 to 6 pounds each. “Thirty percent of that is dirt,” says Steve.
Steve and Kate do the initial cleaning themselves before sending the wool to a mill in Idaho for further processing; the mill then returns the wool in the form of spun yarn or roving wool. Kate sells the yarn (at the Mazama Store, Fiber in Twisp, and 3 Wild Sheep in Chelan) to cover the processing costs.
While not overly high-maintenance, the sheep require some tending to: feeding and watering, sweeping out their barn each day, moving hay bales around – and this in addition to any farm’s standard winter chores like plowing and shoveling. So when Steve, a former collegiate Nordic ski racer, threw out his back in December, it threw Howling Gale Farm into a predicament.
But Methow folks know how to take care of their neighbors, and soon Steve and Kate found Mike Corrigan plowing their driveway, Tyler Slostad helping with the sheep, and what Steve describes as “so many other generous people” lending a hand where needed. “We’re very grateful,” Steve says.
When asked whether sheep deserve the bad rap they get for being mindless followers, Steve and Kate say “absolutely not.” Not Shetland Sheep, at least. “They’re very smart and they’re observant,” Steve says. “Each has an individual personality. They’re hard to herd – they scatter, they don’t just follow the flock.”