County event attracts proudly sheepish crowd


Eight skinny, white sheep pricked up their ears and scurried forward in a tight huddle as Strike, a 1-year-old black-and-white border collie, bounded around them in a wide arc.

Strike's owner, Linda Tesdahl of Mount Airy, stood on the other side of the flock, shouting commands and holding out her arms to guide the dog. Then she put one hand up, palm out, and Stripe stopped instantly, dropping his silky body to the ground and watching her intently.

Barbara Klein of Sykesville explained to a small group gathered around the fenced-off enclosure at the Howard County Fairgrounds that the dog inherently wants to position itself opposite Tesdahl, pushing the sheep in her direction the way wolves corner their prey.

"You're using all those natural instincts to do the work for you," she said.

The demonstration Friday capped off a daylong seminar on working sheepdogs, part of a day of preliminary activities for the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival.

The festival, which runs through today at 5 p.m., is the largest of its kind in the country, bringing as many as 50,000 visitors to West Friendship for seminars, demonstrations, competitions, shopping and entertainment.

In addition to events intended to educate the public, such as sheep shows, weaving competitions and cooking contests, organizers try to offer practical lessons for sheep owners, said Leslie Bauer, a festival spokeswoman.

"We try to cover all aspects of sheep and wool," she said.

The goal of the sheepdog class was to point out the possibilities for using dogs to make shepherding easier, said Klein, a dog groomer and sheepdog owner. She taught the class with Tesdahl, a full-time sheep farmer and sheepdog trainer.

Working with a sheepdog can be fun, but "humane and competent management of the livestock is the goal," Klein said. She and Tesdahl spent many hours discussing the training required to make a dog's instincts effective in the field.

Klein said the hardest part to get across to the class is the way relationships among the sheep, owners and dogs are "so varied and multidimensional." She said, "That is something nobody can tell you about."

Karen Graham and her daughter Alyssa, 13, came from Newton, N.J., for the festival. They have a 7-month-old border collie puppy.

"It's nice to learn what you can do with them," said Karen. But, she said, she would be happy if the dog just learned how to behave.

After someone gave them their first sheep, the Grahams built up a small flock of more than 30 wool-breed sheep along with angora goats and angora rabbits.

Raising animals "is an important part of the world that so many kids miss," said Karen, whose full-time job is nursing. Alyssa, who is active in 4-H, added, "It makes you responsible."

Nationwide, the number of sheep has been dropping, but the rate of decline seems to be slowing, said David Greene, a festival founder and White Hall sheep farmer.

For the past two years, prices for lamb meat have been very good, he said, and demand for sheep that have no wool has increased as farmers try to avoid the hassle and expense of shearing.

Fine wool, used in expensive sweaters and suits, still brings a good price, he said, but prices for medium wool - which is predominant in Maryland and used for sweaters and socks - have been terrible.

Greene, who is also on the executive board of the American Sheep Industry, said Maryland continues to have a fairly strong sheep population. Sheep fit well on small farms, which are more and more common in areas facing development, Greene said, and they are popular as 4-H projects.

Marty Gutekunst of Harrisburg, Pa., has been coming to the festival for 20 years, and he said it inspired him to get into sheep farming.

His family started with a sheep for his daughter's 4-H project about seven years ago and now has a flock on 8 acres. Gutekunst, a systems analyst, said, "I'm in front of a computer all day; this is my release."

This year, he said, the festival attracted his wife for the shopping, his daughter for a spinning contest, his son for the entertainment and him for the hands-on sheep activities.

"There's something here for everybody," he said.

Admission and parking for the festival are free. Information: www.sheepandwoolfest or 410-531-3647.

Today's highlights at the festival

All day: American Textile History Museum exhibit. Seminars by museum staff at noon and 1 p.m.

8 a.m. to 11 a.m.: Sheep-to-shawl contest. Judging and shawl auction at 1:30 p.m.

11 a.m.: Maryland Grand Lamb Cook-Off.

11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.: Working sheepdog demonstrations.

Noon to 2 p.m.: Sheep shearing demonstrations.

12:30 p.m.: Parade of sheep breeds.

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