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Inexplicable appeal of sheep draws big festival crowd


Consider, for a moment, a sheep.

"A sheep is dumb, docile, stubborn, contrary and smelly," says Jack Price, a cowboy hat atop his head, cowboy boots on his feet and a gray mustache streaming down either side of his mouth like a spilled milkshake.

Mr. Price, 73, is a retired sheep breeder. For 40 years he raised Hampshire sheep, sometimes 200 to 300 head at a time, on his 90-acre farm near Westminster.

At the 20th annual Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, which opened yesterday and continues today at the Howard County Fairgrounds next to Interstate 70 at Route 32, Mr. Price provides commentary -- in his Southern drawl, with his wry sense of humor -- for the working sheep-dog demonstrations.

The demonstrations, where perky border collies herd agitated sheep around a large dirt ring, are one of the most popular events at the immensely popular festival.

Somewhere around 45,000 people turned out last year. And yesterday, judging from the rush of humanity on a splendid spring day, organizers anticipate more than 50,000 this year.

Why do they come? Why do they crowd into a festival featuring, of all things, sheep?

"I don't know," Mr. Price says after considering the question. "I can't explain it."

Carole Glorioso, treasurer of the festival, says people come because of the numerous crafts people, the wholesome family atmosphere, the food, the free admission.

Larry Fisher, head of the grounds committee, says they come because it's the first nice weather of the year and one of the first festivals of the season.

Maybe they come for the shearing demonstrations, the bluegrass music, the spinning and weaving demonstrations, the bagpipe music, the cooking demonstrations, the hammer-dulcimer music. Maybe they come for the lamb roast Dijon.

But nobody blurts out the expected answer: They come for the sheep.

"You can't go out and hug one as easily as you can a dog or something," says Sharon Pilson, who keeps sheep at her Thurmont farm and is in charge of the festival's Great Lamb Cookoff, which begins at 11 a.m. today.

"I call them my ladies and my guys," she says of her flock. "We sit out there, and I rub their heads. We talk. It's easier talking to them than your own children."

Mary Ann Johnson, who brought 17 Columbia sheep down from Lakewood, N.J., for the sheep showing, says they don't seem to have a great will to live. "Sometimes if one gets a tummy ache," she says, "he'll lay down and die."

David Greene, Carroll County's extension agent, says sheep are easy to care for and they're small. He and his wife have sheep at home; they're her business and his hobby, he says.

"Sheep are popular because of all the small farms in Maryland and the East," says Mr. Greene, wearing a tie adorned with sheep. "You can have 10 or 15 sheep on a small farm, where you could have only one or two cows."

He says sheep aren't really dumb; they're predictable. They've learned to stay together for protection; they're gregarious. "The animal that strayed from the flock was the one that got knocked off," he says.

As for the old saw about sheep being so dumb that if one jumps off a cliff the rest will follow, Mr. Greene says: "I don't know about jumping off a cliff. Sheep are real scared of depth."

Mr. Price, the retired sheep breeder, doesn't know about the old cliff saw either. But try to lead sheep across water and see what happens, he says.

"You can take them down to a branch," he says, meaning a stream. "And they don't want to get their feet wet. They'll just stand there and stand there, and man or dogs can't get them to move.

"You finally might have to take one around the neck and drag it across the branch. Once one goes, they'll all tend to go."

Mr. Price, a respected member of the sheep community, about this time figures he ought to attach a disclaimer to his comments, just so nobody who raises a lamb with a bottle will take offense.

"Somewhere, if you're going to print any of this," he says, "you'd better say this is just my opinion, the gospel according to me. I didn't write a college text on this or anything."

One thing, though, Mr. Price says, that might explain people's attraction to sheep:

"I don't know a better tranquilizer than to look out over a field full of sheep -- some lying down, some of them standing -- just calmly chewing their cuds."

So consider, for a moment, not one sheep, but a flock, huddled in a sloping, green pasture, calmly passing a warm and breezy day.

"You just can't stay wound up tight," Mr. Price says, "if you just stand and look out there for a while."

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