Seven Sisters Farm
I've been working with Cathe Capel of Seven Sisters Farm in Illinois for many years, now. She is a member of the C-U Spinners and Weavers Guild and has shepherded many wonderful sheep in her longstanding flock. She also has chickens, wonderful guard dogs, and some beautiful bluebells in a lower meadow. Sounds pretty idyllic, eh? Her sheep always have plenty of pasture and seem to generally enjoy the sunshine and each other. I hope you enjoy the interview and the beauty of her flock!
August 2021 Interview
Q: How did you get started raising sheep? Where did the idea for Seven Sisters Farm come from?
Cathe: In the 1970s and 80s, when I lived in Wyoming, I helped my husband’s mother with her flock of 50 Columbia ewes. I loved the work and the gentleness of the ewes we cared for. We saved a fleece or two from shearing one year and taught ourselves to spin. Dee was an avid knitter and taught me to knit. She had always wanted to weave, and so she became a weaver.
Life, work, and children happened for several years, and I never forgot how much I loved working with sheep. In 2006, back in Illinois, I found myself ready for a pre-retirement transition. I started spinning again, and we found an old brick farmhouse on 20 acres. I had my own sheep as soon as the fences were up.
Q: What breeds of sheep have you raised and what are the interesting features of each?
Cathe: I started out with Leicester Longwools; I bought a fleece and was absolutely taken with the luster and lock structure, so I purchased a starter flock from the same producer. Leicester Longwools are a heritage breed, considered rare by The Livestock Conservancy, and part of the makeup of almost every modern breed. They are good moms, produce a lot of milk, and keep well on pasture. I gradually transitioned to Corriedales because the wool is more versatile, the lambs grow faster, and they remind me of Columbias, my first sheep love.
Corriedales were the first dual-purpose crossbred. Developed in Australia and New Zealand between 1868 and 1910 by crossing Lincolns and Merinos, they were imported to the US in 1914 and are the most popular breed in the world.
My goals for my flock include gentle dispositions, good moms, good fertility, manageable size (not too big), and high quality fleeces: dense wool with well-defined crimp, good length and soundness; consistent across the entire fleece; and fairly uniform across the flock. I love getting compliments on my fleeces from shearers and spinners!
Q: Do you have a fun or endearing story to share about sheep, farming, etc?
Cathe: The story of Fiona.
Lambing season was going pretty well in February 2019. Splenda, one of my favorite young ewes, was “in lamb” after the previous breeding season with no lambs. She was the third girl in the maternity ward to go into labor, and after 45 minutes and a little help, she produced a big, healthy ewe lamb. I was overseeing Splenda cleaning up the new ewe lamb (later named Rose) when a tiny, very skinny little ewe lamb sort of fell out of Splenda’s back end and landed in the straw. Her umbilical cord was about as big around as a piece of straw, and she was the skinniest lamb I’d ever seen!
She was a lively little thing with a loud voice, and Splenda soon started cleaning her up too. But she was too weak to stand.
After 30 minutes or so, I moved Splenda and the two lambs into a pen of their own. Rose was up and nursing in no time, and Fiona was happy to watch and comment on the proceedings from a corner under the heat lamp. She was too weak to stand or nurse, so I milked Splenda every few hours and fed little Fiona with a stomach tube.
After a few days, Splenda let me know that she did not want this noisy, skinny, little lamb in the pen with her and Rose, so Fiona became our first “house lamb.” She quickly learned to stand, gobble milk replacer from a bottle, wear diapers, and play with our two Mini Aussies. We loved having her as a house guest!
Fiona grew quickly on milk replacer, and when she was about three weeks old, she joined the rest of the lambs in the barn nursery. Splenda talked to her and seemed to recognize her but didn’t allow her to nurse, and Rose welcomed her as a special playmate. We continued to offer her a bottle for a few more weeks, and she quickly caught up growth wise with her peers. Today she and Rose are almost exactly the same size. And Fiona continues to recognize us as her parents and comes over for attention (and treats!) whenever she sees us in the pasture.
Q: How do you see your flock evolving and changing in the next few years?
Cathe: As of August 2021 I will no longer have a breeding flock. Sadly, because of health issues, I have to say goodbye to my girls. They have found a good home in Wisconsin with a shepherd I trust. I am still able to care for a small fiber flock for a while, so it’s not a complete dispersal, but the lovely Fiona is going to Wisconsin. It’s her best chance for a long, happy life. I will miss her every time I walk out in the pastures!
Q: I know you're invested in the US wool industry/market. What kinds of initiatives are there that people can support with money, time, and purchasing power?
Cathe: Find a local shepherd or source (like knittingthestash.com) for local wool and support them! You can also help by purchasing yarn and prepared American wool from small local mills. And eat local lamb! Almost every shepherd keeps their books balanced and their flock size within the carrying capacity of their pastures by selling lambs for meat.
Q: What is your best piece of advice for the next generation of shepherds?
Cathe: Learn as much as you can before you purchase sheep, find an experienced mentor to help with the learning curve, and plant trees!