The Foundation owns and manages a little under 9,000 acres of protected conservation land on the island. Nantucket is an interesting place to practice conservation because many of the unique natural areas on Nantucket exist because of human activities and disturbance. The rare sandplain grasslands and heathlands found on the south shores of Nantucket exist in large part due to sheep flocks that once grazed freely and to purposefully set fires that burned to the ocean, clearing out encroaching shrubs and encouraging the growth of blueberries. Without disturbance events, open grass-dominated areas will start to convert of shrublands and eventually be dominated by larger shrubs and trees. This is a very natural process but on Nantucket, that cycle was disrupted long ago, allowing large areas of grasslands to develop. Today the remnants of those grasslands are home to many rare and endangered plants, insects and birds. At the Foundation, we are constantly exploring ways to use different management techniques to maintain and promote these rare habitats.
In 2005, we started a research project to see how sheep grazing would impact native grasses and flowering plants, as well as how effectively sheep can eliminate encroaching woody plants; essentially we were attempting to see if sheep could be an effective management tool to help us maintain and promote those rare grasslands. The historic grazing of sheep in areas that today host some of our best sandplain grassland communities prompted us to try grazing as a land management tool. So in 2005, the first sheep of our flock arrived at Squam Farm. Coincidentally, at the time, we didn’t realize they were the first sheep of our flock, we were only borrowing a group of ewes to test out the impacts of grazing. Unknown to us, the ewes we borrowed were pregnant and soon the Foundation was the proud owner of a group of lambs. Over time, we’ve found that sheep born and raised on Nantucket (our Nantucket-native sheep) are more willing to eat woody/shrubby vegetation than sheep that have grown up grazing in more grassy areas.
For three years we monitored how rotational sheep grazing impacted the grasses, flowering plants and shrubs growing at Squam and found that sheep are an excellent land management tool on Nantucket. Sheep grazing significantly decreased the cover of shrubs – particularly scrub oak, poison ivy and grape vines, and did not negatively impact rare plants. We use brushcutting or mowing to maintain many of the open areas on Nantucket and mowing similarly reduces the cover of shrubs, but grazing additionally increases areas of bare ground which helps promote the successful germination of grasses.
Our sheep flock lives year round on our Squam Farm property, under the supervision of our Sheep Manager Jessica Pykosz and her sheepdog Rem. You can see the sheep out grazing in different areas through the spring, summer and fall. We rotationally graze the sheep around the property, using portable fencing to move them from area to area as they eat all of the edible vegetation. We have noticed that the sheep tend to enjoy younger, more tender leaves so we start them grazing in the early spring and allow them to re-graze pastures after the vegetation has re-sprouted with new fresh foliage.
We are still continuing to study sheep grazing and its impacts on our native plant communities. We are currently examining what, if any, impact sheep grazing has on specific plants we want to see in our grasslands at Squam. We are also letting the sheep graze a new pasture out at Squam Farm that is dominated by woody invasive shrubs including huckleberry, autumn olive and porcelain berry to see if the sheep will graze on these shrubs and potentially decrease their abundance.
In addition to working hard performing important conservation grazing, our sheep are also great a source of useful local products. The Foundation is now offering wool for sale, processed from the fleece of our locally grazing sheep flock. A vital part of maintaining a healthy sheep flock is the shearing of sheep fleeces in the spring, removing a year of fleece growth to facilitate lambing. help keep sheep cool in the summer and increase the cleanliness and health of our sheep. All of our sheep are shorn right here on Nantucket. We then clean and pack up the fleeces, sending them off island to a family owned spinnery in CT, Twist of Fate Spinnery. They process and spin our wool into yarn of various weights and ship it back to us for sale on the Island.
Our yarn is locally grown, all natural and 100% un-dyed in either cream or shades of grey to brown (depending on the natural color of the sheep’s fleece!) You can purchase yarn directly from the Nantucket Conservation Foundation office – just give us a call at (508) 228 – 2884 or you can also purchase it on island from Flock (on the Sparks Rotary across from the Post Office).
We offer yarn in several different weights suitable for many types of knitting and weaving projects. Price and yardage is dependent on the yarn weight:
Yarn Type Yards/Skein Weight Price
Fingering Weight 460 yds. 4 oz. $36
Worsted Weight 250 yds. 4 oz. $30
Bulky Weight 150 yds. 4 oz. $20
Chunky Weight 75 yds. 4 oz. $18
Local Nantucket yarn would make an excellent Christmas present for the knitter in your family and will directly support our sheep grazing project on Nantucket. If you stop by the office to purchase some yarn, you might also be interested in our packets of locally collected, native Nantucket grasses and flowers for sale.