Happy to be sheepish


For the uninitiated, the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival can be just a touch overwhelming.

Seven hundred sheep maaa-ing in different keys. Sweaters everywhere (never mind the heat). Lamb sandwiches, lamb sausages, lamb gyros, lamb kebabs. Fleece and yarn in every tent, barn and building on the Howard County Fairgrounds.

"This is like a big convention of sheep people," said Beth Hines, who owns a herd in Ohio and attends every year.

"From the breeders to the shearers to the weavers," added her 33-year-old daughter, Holly Hines, sitting next to the family's livestock yesterday afternoon.

The two-day festival, which ends today, is the largest event of its kind in the country, according to the American Sheep Industry Association in Colorado.

Because the fair is free, no one knows exactly how many attend each year. But organizers estimate that between 50,000 and 60,000 people show up.

Denise Dunlap, 48, traveled from south-central Pennsylvania looking for fleece to spin on a drop spindle, an ancient hand-held tool for turning animal fiber into yarn.

Woodbine resident Jessica Raskin, 12, brought four ewes to show in the festival's contests. "They're cute," she said, explaining the animals' appeal.

The Bradley family look for sheep supplies and -- occasionally -- sheep. "We got our ram from here last year," said Patty Bradley, 50, who tends to a flock in Huntingtown when she's not at her day job with the Food and Drug Administration.

David S. Todd, a Towson sheep-shearer, sharpened tools of his trade between two barns yesterday. Over the din, he answered questions about his job.

He can usually shear 100 to 200 sheep a day, if he doesn't have to jump between too many small farms. His personal record: 402 in eight hours -- in New Zealand, a major producer of the wooly animals.

Todd uses a shearing machine. Lance Shreck, from Bunker Hill, W. Va., got out hand clippers to put the finishing touches on his Corriedales yesterday morning.

Kimberly Brandon, of Brooklyn Park, brought her two children so they could watch all the shearing, the spinning, the weaving. Eight-year-old John and 7-year-old Jade have read about sheep, but it's not the same, their mother said. "They're just in awe," she added.

Thirty-one-year-old Clara Parkes, who knits and spins, traveled from her home in Portland for the event. She attends other shows and has seen some of the same people traveling the East Coast on the "fiber circuit."

It's an addictive hobby, Parkes said, a collection of delicately colored fleece in her hands. "I came with an empty suitcase," she confided.

What's here would fill thousands of suitcases.

Bags and bags and bags of fleece, natural or hand-dyed any hue you could think up. Yarn spun for those who don't spin themselves. White-wool angel decorations, soft as a cloud. Wooden shepherd's crooks.

And the sheep things. Sheep greeting cards. Sheep pins. Sheep books. Sheep on a stick for a child to ride like a toy horse, from a place called "Sheep Thrills." Sheep on sweaters, big-eyed and white.

In a place where people have sheep on the brain, it's no wonder some are nervous about the bad news overseas. Signs on the barns plead: "Keep Foot-and-Mouth Disease OUT of America."

Federal and state agriculture officials set up a table and passed out brochures about the virus. Some shepherds decided not to take any risks -- 1,000 sheep were signed up to appear, but a couple hundred didn't show.

Beth Hines, the livestock owner from Ohio, couldn't pull out. This is a family tradition.

"We're concerned, but it wasn't enough to keep us away," she said, glancing around at the festival she has attended for 15 years. "This is the best in the United States."

The festival continues from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. today at the fairgrounds off Route 144 in West Friendship.

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