West Ironbound Sheep

These days I am traveling. For the foreseeable future, posts will be from the road, where I hope to discover new ways that the old is being made new again in the interest of sustainable living.

I’ve been in Nova Scotia for the past four months staying in the lovely village of Kingsburg on the south shore at the mouth of the Lahave River. Like its much more famous neighbour Lunenburg (a UNESCO world heritage site), Kingsburg has a history of continuous European settlement that dates to the late eighteenth century when Britain recruited “foreign Protestants,” mostly German, Swiss, and Dutch farmers, to settle in the colony. Before that, the LaHave region had briefly been explored and settled by the French beginning in 1604. The area is traditional Mi’kmaw land.

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An Early French map of the lower LaHave River. Today’s Gaff Point in the area of Kingsburg is shown at the bottom left. Isle Marelle, noted on the map for a cove capable of sheltering chaloupes, is now known as West Ironbound (about which more below).

Britain acquired mainland Nova Scotia from France in 1713 at the treaty of Utrecht. For years afterward, a tiny garrison of British soldiers kept a tenuous grip on the colony, which continued to be home to French Acadians and Indigenous Mi’kmaq. Indeed, the British relied on Acadian neutrality in the ongoing eighteenth-century wars of empire to hold the province, and even for support in the form of supplies. The Mi’kmaq, on the other hand, generally maintained their pre-existing alliance with France, mediated through French missionaries who continued to operate on the mainland (from their base at Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island (which remained in French hands until 1758). All of which made for tense politics and very loose imperial control.

Then in 1749, Britain established a settlement at Halifax and from there began to exert ever greater control over the Acadian and Indigenous population. The Mi’kmaq objected to this new settlement and went to war with Britain; a war that resulted in a treaty of peace and friendship in 1752, which has became a legal touchstone for Indigenous rights in the region in the present day. Beginning in 1755, administrators in Halifax and Boston decided the Acadian population was no longer needed or trustworthy and began expelling as many people as possible from their homes, sending them on an Atlantic world sojourn that lasted decades and spread from Louisiana to Haiti and to France. The Foreign Protestants were part of an effort to reinforce the non-Acadian, non-Mi’kmaq population and develop the colony in a way that would disenfranchise both and fit with British imperial aspirations to control the region following the defeat of France in the Seven Years War (1756-63). For the settlers, however, life in their new home was not what they expected. The land was rocky, but the sea plentiful. And they had to learn to become fishers as well as farmers.

Kingsburg remains a small village and many descendents of the five original settlers families continue to live in the area. As a result, it is often possible to read the history of settlement on the ground and in the land, although farming, for the most part, is no longer practiced and the fishery has been decimated by overfishing and environmental change. Instead, Kingsburg has become a cottage area. Along with the fishery, farming declined in the region in the 1970s and 1980s. According to locals, pasture animals, sheep and cattle, continued to roam Beach Hill (Garden Lots), overlooking Hirtle’s beach until the 1980s, when the land first began to be divided for houses and cottages. But since then, agriculture has steadily dwindled, and the land has acquired new valuation for its view and ocean frontage.

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Cyril Hirtle’s home, c. 1910. Beach Hill farm and pasture land can be seen in the background.

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The same house today, known as Gladee’s, showing new cottages lining the crest of Beach Hill in the background

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The opposite side of Beach Hill overlooking Kingsburg pond. The outline of former Garden Lots, pasture land, and old orchards remain clear despite the new development.

Although farming is returning to the south shore in the form of community supported agriculture (CSA), places like Kingsburg are increasingly valued as vacation destinations rather than as productive and sustainable farming communities. One example of renewed agricultural activity in the region, with a long history in sustainable practices, is found on the island of West Ironbound located just off the Kingsburg coast. Here, first the local lighthouse keeper and then local mainland farmers began pasturing sheep in the mid-nineteenth century. When the lighthouse was automated in 1935, sheep pasturing ceased. But in the 1970s the sheep were re-introduced to the island. Since then the Wentzell family has continuously maintained a flock. For the most part, the sheep are left to their own devices, grazing on grass in the summer, and seaweed, spruce buds and moss in the winter. The flock varies in size from roughly thirty to sixty sheep.

This video, produced by the LaHave Islands Marine Museum, gives a history of the region. At 1:50 and 2:32 are images of sheep being ferried to West Ironbound in fishing dories.

Currently the sheep are kept by Jake Wentzell. Each January, he introduces a ram to the flock to ensure that lambs are born in the late spring when food is plentiful and they have the greatest chance of survival. The sheep are sheered in early summer, and in the fall male lambs and weaker females are removed for meat.

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West Ironbound from Gaff Point

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Sheep on West Ironbound

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Sheep Shearing on West Ironbound in the 1970s

West Ironbound has recently become a part of the Kingsburg Coastal Conservancy (KCC), a community land trust that preserves the beaches, headlands (such as Gaff Point), and Wetlands in and around Kingsburg, safeguarding traditional access to the shoreline. The sheep. however, are staying. When volunteer naturalists visited West Ironbound for the KCC, they found that the sheep had become a part of the local environment. The sheep maintain an “edge environment” between fields and forest; transition zones that support a variety of plants and offer popular nesting areas for birds. Such “edge habitats” are important for maintaining biodiversity. Moreover, the sheep themselves, according to the KCC, have adapted to the free range habitat of the island and likely would not survive transfer to a confined, mainland pasturage.

West Ironbound provides an example of how traditional farming, conservancy, and new ways of valuing and using land are combining in Nova Scotia. It also reveals in a very tangible way, histories of ecological colonialism, environmental change, and adaptation. In the last thirty years, Kingsburg has undergone a remarkable transformation from farming and fishing village to cottage country and seasonal home.The farmlands and orchards are still here, but gone for the most part are the flocks, the fish, and the fruit. A new colonial settlement is underway; one that undermines, but also oddly helps to reveal what was once, and could be again, productive ground.

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