A Great Sheep Expedition
MADISON_It’s Monday evening and the motor home is packed. Jennifer and Alex Gunn are preparing to leave in the morning for the first leg of their newest adventure, the Great Sheep Expedition, an independent research project the couple is undertaking. They are bound for Newfoundland, the first stop in their quest to find the place of origin for all twenty domestic sheep breeds native to the United States and the seven domestic sheep breeds native to Canada.
Once they find the location of origin, they will attempt to find a sheep, representative of its breed, as close to the place/region of origin as possible. They will then photograph the sheep (with permission), interview the shepherd (if willing), and obtain both fleece and DNA samples. A photograph and information about the breed will be sent to the Oklahoma State University’s Department of Animal Science where it will be added to their sheep breed database. The fleece sample will be sent to Betty Stikkers in the Netherlands where it will be added to a growing international sheep fleece journal. DNA samples of each breed, retrieved via ear punch, will be sent to the International Sheep Genomics Consortium lab where it will be made available for research projects.
Jennifer and Alex are sheep farmers themselves, the owners of Bracken Moss Farm and proprietors of Bracken Moss Fine and Rare Fibers in Madison Village.
Their shop is a knit-nut’s dream – an outlet for all things fiber, carrying a wide variety of yarns, fleece and felt, along with artisan tools like knitting needles, crochet hooks, drop spindles, spinning wheels and looms.
“We focus on rare breed sheep,” says Jennifer. “We want to support small farmers who raise these rare and endangered breeds by selling everything from raw fleece right off the sheep or animals, all the way to rovings, yarns, felts and everything.”
They also offer knitting and crochet classes which take participants from ”sheep to shawl”, and host special events to educate folks on the benefits of using fleece fresh off the lamb, and raw fleece and fur from the likes of baby camels and Tibetan yaks. Jennifer tries to source as much from local farms as possible, but finding some of the unusual fibers she stocks is a little trickier. Her latest find – a batch of fleece from Awassi sheep, descendents of the first sheep humans ever domesticated, acquired while visiting Alex in Kuwait, where he works most of the year as a civilian contractor.
“A lot of people just run to Walmart to get some yarn,” she said. “But I’m trying to build a connection between the raw fiber and the animal it came from. I mean, there’s just something special about reaching into a bag of fresh wool and feeling it. People have been working with animal and plant fibers for thousands of years. You just have to experience it.”
Jennifer Gunn grew up on a farm in Madison, but she had been away for about 30 years before returning with her husband in 2015. She enlisted in the U.S. Army right out of high school, ultimately serving four years. She earned four college degrees, and has seen everything – from working with violent offenders in the mental health care system, to life as a patrol officer and counter-narcotics agent in Savannah, Georgia.
She held two post-military jobs in Afghanistan; the first time she was embedded with the Green Berets, the second time with USAID in Kabul. It was there she met her husband, Alex, who was working with the locals, using his background in the British military to help teach the ins and outs of airport security. Their compounds were next to each other – they shared “ten walls and some razor wire.”
The two met on July 4th, 2015, when the Brits invited the Americans over for a barbecue. It was “love at first sight”, and they returned to Jennifer’s hometown to be married in January 2016. Wishing to live near her dad and brother, they purchased farm property on Route 84, a half-mile from where she grew up on Dayton Road, and settled in to the business of sheep farming.
Jennifer had raised sheep with her 4-H Club as a child, and the original intention was to raise them for the meat, but this time around she decided she would prefer to raise them for their fleece only. After 21 years of dealing with violence and war, she told her husband she wanted “something pretty” in her life.
Caring for the sheep turned out to be the perfect way for the pair to decompress from the pressure and strain of all they had seen in Afghanistan. They started out with nine Romeldale-CVMs, a rare, endangered breed Jennifer chose after visiting the Livestock Conservancy website, which provides a list of endangered species. The sheep are named after film stars like Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Dean Martin, Marilyn Monroe, Vivian Leigh, Kathryn Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Debbie Reynolds, Rita Hayworth and Lauren Bacall.
When Alex asked what they would do with the fleece, she suggested having a little shop on the farm, but their zoning did not permit a commercial business, so they opened the shop in downtown Madison with the idea of developing a place where people could come in and learn about all these fibers, where they come from and hopefully help foster an appreciation for them and the small, independent farms that are keeping these often endangered breeds from disappearing.
The first leg of the Great Sheep Expedition will involve five to six weeks of traveling and “car camping” in the U.S. and Canada, after which the couple will return home to regroup. They plan to leave for the second leg of the expedition in February, and visit Ireland, Scotland, Great Britain, and Wales.
They will document the journey on their YouTube channel and Facebook. Along the way, they will be creating other ways for sheep enthusiasts to get involved and learn about not just the sheep breeds, but the shepherds who raise them, the cultures in which they are raised, and how each breed contributes to the world.
The Gunns have created The Great Sheep Expedition breed passport so anyone can follow along on their journey. The passports and pictures of each breed will be available via the Facebook page and at the Bracken Moss Farm Fine and Rare Fibers website. The Great Sheep Expedition passports, tote bags, sheep breed pins, t-shirts, sweatshirts and more can be purchased at the shop or online.
Bracken Moss Farm Fine and Rare Fibers is located at 50 West Main St. Phone: (440) 983-4538. Visit them online at https://brackenmossfineandrarefibers.com or at www.facebook.com/Brackenmossfarmfineandrarefibers.Like