Pastoral islands offer summer home for Newfoundland sheep
Updated: Dec 8, 2020
Sheep are ideally suited to outport life in Newfoundland and we use the animals for both wool and food. This is one reason why lamb recipes figure so prominently in my cookbook and in my kitchen. I thought you might enjoy taking an historic look at sheep farming in Newfoundland, written by my good friend Howie Morry, whose family has been farming sheep here since the 1800s.
By Howard I. Morry
Coastal communities of Newfoundland were originally settled for their proximity to the fishing grounds. However subsistence level agriculture was also an important component to the survival of these communities. Most families had their kitchen gardens, maybe a goat or a cow for milk, and a small number of sheep for their own family use. A typical flock size would be about 10 sheep. Wool was an important commodity, as was sheep and lamb meat. Sheep were ideally suited to outport life in Newfoundland, as they foraged well on rough pasture. In the days before refrigeration, a lamb could be consumed by a family in a couple of days – long before it would spoil. Similar to lobster in the Caribbean, lamb and mutton was considered "poor man's food" and was associated by many with poverty and hard times.
The sheep roamed at large around the communities and fences were erected around vegetable gardens and homes to keep the sheep out - not in! My father told me that when he was a boy, The Gaze; a steep hillside overlooking the community of Ferryland, was white with sheep. A number of factors caused a great decline of sheep population in Newfoundland in the latter half of the 20th century. In the early 1940s, a number of American military bases were established in Newfoundland creating good employment opportunities with cash money. Confederation with Canada in 1949 brought pensions, social security and the "Baby Bonus". Better economic times, along with the establishment of municipalities and community councils which enacted anti-roaming legislation are generally regarded as the main reasons for the dramatic decline in sheep numbers. Interestingly, many Newfoundlanders are only now rediscovering the treasure of our local lamb, as a whole generation grew up in households where lamb was not served.
Families of Ferryland used Isle Au Bois for summer pasture for sheep and goats down through the generations. I am told that my great-grandfather - Thomas Graham Morry (1849-1935) had a large farming operation in Ferryland, with all the modern farm equipment of the day and used Isle Au Bois for summer pasture. My Grandfather, Howard Leopold Morry (1885 - 1972) used Isle Au Bois regularly for summer grazing. My father –Howard George Morry (1934 - 2016) used both Isle Au Bois and nearby Ship Island in Burnt Cove. My family, my brother, brother in law, as well as the Hynes, Coady, Hayes and Ruby families continue using the islands to this day.
Sheep wait to disembark the small open boat that transferred them from the Isle aux Bois to Ferryland, N.L. on Saturday, October 24, 2020. The Morry family let their sheep roam the small uninhabited island off Ferryland during the summer. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly)
Isle Au Bois is strategically located at the entrance to Ferryland harbour and in the 1700s was occupied by a garrison of British soldiers ordered to protect the settlement from the French Navy and privateers. The cannons, sentry posts, a water well and shallow depressions which were once trenches are still visible on the island. Today only the sheep guard over Isle Au Bois and the rich history of the island.
The second of three islands used for summer pasture is Ship Island. One of an archipelago of five islands stretching from Witless Bay to Bauline South, Ship Island is approximately 1.5 km offshore from Burnt Cove. The sheep are transported in late May in a small open boat to their island paradise. As the boat touches in on the pebbled beach, many of the older veterans get the scent of the lush salt seasoned grass, and leap out onto the beach running up the bank. Their young lambs follow close behind, trusting that their mothers know where they are going. The island provides a safe haven, free of predators and an all you can eat buffet of natural grasses, with the occasional treat of seaweed that washes up on the beach. This is the epitome of “naturally raised.”
The third island is Fox Island, located only a stone’s throw from the beach in Tors Cove. Fox Island is also known locally as “O’Driscoll’s Island”. Legend has it that a British dignitary was sailing to St. John’s and the ship got lost in the fog off Tor’s Cove. O’Driscoll boarded the ship and piloted it safely into St. John’s Harbour. In gratitude, the island was granted to the O’Driscoll family. While only a good stone’s throw from shore, this island can be tricky to access due to submerged rocks surrounding the island. It is most easily accessed at high tide.
Using these islands has always been a cooperative effort, with as much manpower as you could muster. In times gone by, our arrival at the wharf would always draw a crowd. Mr. Harold Walsh, a local fisherman and later John Henry Tee, Gerry Colbert and Steve Coady would captain their boat for the trip. There were always strapping young men down at the wharf eager to jump aboard to help round up the sheep. Local families; Colbert, Melvin and Tee also used the island and would make the trip as well. When we would arrive in Burnt Cove with the woolly cargo, elderly men smoking pipes, and little kids on bicycles would be waiting for us to observe the activity. The Burnt Cove wharf is long gone now – a victim of the Moratorium and decline in small enterprise fisher families, but our family’s tradition of using the Sheep Islands remains.