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By the Way: A shepherd tends her flock


Marlene Halstead of Rocky Top Farm gazes out her broad kitchen windows. They frame a lovely pastoral scene – chubby, wooly sheep grazing peacefully in a lush green pasture boxed in by a background of the thick woods typical of Tinicum Township. She has 13 sheep at the moment.

“They’re my people, she said. “They all have their own personalities. I can tell each by its voice. They don’t go into the woods,” she said, “and they really don’t like to be out of sight of the house. They come when I call them – mostly.” She doesn’t carry a shepherd’s crook, but she does admit she once had one but has sold it.

“My sheep are,” she points out with great good humor, “the 4-H project I should have said ‘no’ to.” But she didn’t, and sheep and wool, which she calls “God’s miracle fiber,” have been a passion for her ever since her 4-H days in Willow Grove when she bought her first lamb.

She’s been breeding and selling sheep and their wool ever since, and she said, “I’m still learning about wool.”

Her sheep are smaller than those typically raised for meat. They’re the kind found in England – Longwool crosses of Romney, Blue-Faced Leicester. Lincoln and Wensleydale, all valued for the quality of their fleeces.

And they’re like family. Over the years she’s been a helping hand at their births, nursed them back to health when they’ve been sick, mourned when they’ve left or died.

She’s delivered triplets, once kept a bottle-fed baby lamb in the house for three months. “She used to curl up at my feet in her diaper,” Marlene recalled.

She’ s been injured by one too-aggressive ram and sent another, one she still calls “the ram from hell,” off to the butcher after she “tried really hard to keep him.” While the sheep have made friends with the family dog, a gorgeous blue Weimaraner, and they allow him to run happily among them, Marlene said sheep are generally terrified of dogs.

She explained it’s that predator-prey relationship that allows the famed border collies to herd the animals.

She’s learned about diet – the sheep mostly gaze on grass – and the right amount of protein to add to produce the best wool. And she shears the animals herself, sells their fleeces and roving, a slightly twisted strand of wool, and spins the yarn. She has routinely “done a day of shearing” for the Tinicum Conservancy. She also processes some of the raw wool, sells breeding stock and lambs to those who raise them as pets.

Meanwhile, Marlene and her husband, Jack, reared three daughters, one of whom is a veterinarian’s assistant and helps Marlene with the animals. Her daughter also makes dryer balls from felted lamb’s wool. Marlene sells those at craft shows to people who prefer a non-chemical way to soften laundry.

Interested in the animals’ history, Marlene said, “Sheep were the backbone of the colonies,” And even later, they were a common sight on local farms. She said she saw an 1836 sheep census that counted between 17,000 and 18,000 sheep in Bucks County alone, with similar numbers in Lehigh and Montgomery counties. “Today, there aren’t 2,000 in Bucks. In 2012, there were 1,900 and in 3016 only 1,600,” she said.

She has also been good about sharing her passion and helping to educate children. For years, third-graders from a Waldorf school in Philadelphia visited the farm every year. “The teacher taught them to spin with a stick and a stone. I still haven’t figured that out,” she said.

Marlene is looking forward to taking part in the Garden State Sheep Breeders 25th annual Sheep & Fiber Festival, where she’ll be selling her products. It’s planned for Sept. 7 and 8, at the Hunterdon County Fairgrounds, Routes 202 and 279 in Ringoes, N.J.

The festival will feature vendors, shows, crafts, exhibits and classes, and, of course, lots of sheep, and is open to the public at $5 per person or $10 per car.