Counting sheep

Online First Pictou Island Memories

I recall when at least 15 families raised sheep on Pictou Island. Some had as few as six sheep while others had as many as 40 or more. The main requirement of the sheep was for their wool although mutton was also a delicacy.

Every islander had their own personal markings on their sheep’s ears. Some had tags clipped to the sheep’s ear while other landowners had their lambs ears notched, much the same as ear piercing. The reasoning for this was because every spring all the sheep were turned loose to roam the north side of the Island together. In the spring after the sheep were sheared of their wool, they with their newborn lambs would be led through the woods to the north side of the Island. The sheep would then group together in larger flocks and graze this side of the Island until late autumn. This allowed the grasslands on the south side to mature and produce feed for farm animals during winter months.

In the early days of this century, there were I believe three lobster factories operating on the north side of Pictou Island and two operating on the south side. There were small bunkhouses left behind on the north side when these factories ceased operation. The windows and doors were removed from these structures and the sheep would use these shanties for shelter from wind and rain. I can recall six of those bunkhouses on the north side behind Ernie Rankin’s homestead. This area was a favorite grazing place for the sheep. Grass grew here and fresh water was plentiful where one of the lobster factories and other buildings once stood. In recent years, Bill Hayman from Lyons Brook, Fred Langille from Central Caribou and Tommy Matheson from Truro have built summer cottages around this area. Nothing remains today of the old lobster factories that once thrived on the island.

One of my favourite pastimes when I lived on the island was walking through the woods and hiking the shores. I started doing this when I would be eight or nine years old. Just about every day after I got home from school, I would pick up my BB gun and call for my black lab dog and away we would go. My BB gun was my protection from the imaginary GRIZZLY BEARS and my dog, which I called Doug, was my company. It was about one mile through the woods from our house to the north side shore. On rare occasions I would come across the carcass of a sheep usually on the side of the bank or on the shore. I often speculated as to what could have caused its demise. Usually, however, the sheep would have died of natural causes. I would frequently see foxes on my hikes and I often wondered if perhaps they might have caused their death. It wouldn’t take long for the carcass to disappear with the presence of the foxes.

There were rare occasions when I would discover only the hide of a sheep lying on the bank of the shore. I had questioned my father about this and he informed me that poachers would come ashore on the backside of Pictou Island in search of getting their free winters meat. Poacher’s pretty well had their pick of the big ones with all those sheep roaming around. Since no one lived on this side of the Island, it would be unlikely that anyone would be caught. That would explain why I would only find the sheep’s hide.

The sheep would all start for home on the south side of the Island in autumn when grasses at the north side were becoming scarce. Islanders could easily persuade the sheep into pens with a bucket of oats. All Islanders’ knew each other’s markings and the sheep would be separated when they arrived at someone’s home. It would not be uncommon for Vernie Rankin who lived close to the East End of the Island to call dad on the telephone and tell him that he had some of his sheep. Dad would often call Melvin MacDonald or Ernie Rankin at the West End and tell them the same.

Those days have long since gone. I believe that the only animals that now roam the Islands north side are a few foxes, coyotes and rabbits. Pictou Island has no wildlife such as we have on the mainland. I had occasionally found dead deer that have washed up on the shore. On a find day when the water looks like glass and the land appears closer then normal, deer sometimes will try to swim to Pictou Island. The deer get caught in the strong tides and will eventually drown and wash ashore on Pictou Island. Other occasions may have dogs or coyotes chasing deer from the mainland into the water. The deer that may be already worn out from running will swim until becoming exhausted, drown and wash onto Pictou Island’s shore. Unless someone has recently taken some other wildlife across by boat, there are no deer, skunks, porcupines, raccoons, squirrels, etc. on Pictou Island.