It’s not exactly the swallows and Capistrano, but sheep are back at Hill-Stead.
Theodate Pope wanted a country life. Her rusticity was sophisticated, but at its core Hill-Stead was a farm. The property boasted peach and apple orchards, greenhouses, silos, barns, out buildings and was as up-to-the minute in farming practices as was possible at the time. Miss Pope prided herself on her award-winning livestock. Sixty years later, Lil and Juliana, Hilda, Emma, Irma, Hattie, Poppie, Succotash, Jasmine, Crash, Elsie and Rhubarb are the harbingers of what we hope brings back the Hill-Stead legacy of farming.
Thanks to the generosity of friends from up the hill, sheep once again dot the property. Our sheepherding neighbors let us “borrow” their sheep during the warm months, and sweeter visitors you couldn’t ask for (the shepherds are darn nice, too). To me, there is nothing more companionable than sheep. “Our” Shetland Sheep spend the summer eating the poison ivy and listening to poetry every other wednesday night during the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival. They seem to like poetry, and baa now and again during the readings. But they don’t let on which poems (or poets) they prefer.
Shetland Sheep are wonderful, and have bloodlines dating back 1000 years. They are a dainty breed, not much larger than some sheep dogs. At seventy-five to a hundred pounds, the ewes are pretty and nimble. Rams are only about twenty-five pounds bigger. Though fine-boned, they are rugged. An “unimproved” or “primitive” breed, they retain the robust nature of their Viking forebears. I take exception (on their behalf) to the use of the word “unimproved” when it so clearly in their case means “not in any need of improvement”. Shetland sheep are easy-going –their tails don’t even need to be docked. In the literature, these tails are charmingly referred to as “flute-like”. I don’t know exactly what that means, but if someone described any part of my physique as flute-like, I’d take it as a compliment. These sheep are good mothers, and no-nonsense lambers. As one of the oldest British breeds they maintain the fine characteristics of ancient wild sheep, meaning, among other things, that they are plucky and trouble-free. Our ewes are winsome and Hill-Steaders are, quite frankly, besotted with them.
Theodate was quite an Anglophile. Having British sheep on the place would certainly fit her vision of Hill-Stead, which included stone walls built by stonemasons straight from England, and Capability Brown-inspired landscape architecture. It may be no accident that there are so many yews around the place. Yews are about as English a tree as you can find. The wood was the steel of the day before the industrial revolution, and its strength coupled with its flexibility makes it even today a preferred wood for longbows. Robin Hood, legend has it, used yew for his.
But yew is poisonous-except the berry or “aril” as botanists call it. Don’t heave a sigh of relief. The seed within the aril is toxic,too.
There is little point in trying to suss out the Japanese cultivar from the English or American. Suffice to say the plant is evergreen and can be tamed into a shrub or let loose into a handsome tree. The yew grows charmingly by leaving a bough on the ground so long it takes root and becomes another tree. Thus, it is sometimes hard to say which is the paterfamilias amongst a grouping of yews. A yew is a shrub or a tree, a hedge or an accent plant. They grow in sun or shade and like a nice pruning now and again. Most evergreens don’t. This explains its outlandish popularity as a suburban plant. In ancient times, it may have been the only British evergreen. We can see why-sun or shade, shrub or tree, accent or hedge. Few plants can claim such versatility. In this, they are similar to our sheep!
Perhaps the most impressive feature of yew is its medicinal derivative -taxol. Widely used in the treatment of breast and ovarian cancers, I (like many), may owe my life to it. The pleasure at seeing it in full growth around our property cannot be imagined.
On a lighter note-the yew has the honor of being perhaps the first modern Christmas tree. Queen Charlotte (wife of Charles III) decorated a yew with sweets and toys and illuminated it with candles for a party of local children at Windsor on Christmas Day in 1800.
So there are ewes and yews, in ways oddly similar. We are thrilled to have them both here at Hill-Stead.
See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist