It's approaching midnight and Colonial Williamsburg has long since bedded down for the night. The dim streets are motionless. Distant spring peepers sing a delicate lullaby. In a hidden corner of this sleeping town, Elaine Shirley has returned to work after her usual day of 10 hours and then some.
Shirley and a colleague sit in a darkened stable illuminated by the liquid glow of a few soft floodlights. They are bottle feeding a quartet of bleating lambs whose mothers aren't able to give milk. Three of the lambs, triplets, are not yet a full day old; umbilical cords dangle as testimony to their recent birth. This job can’t wait until morning. Without nourishment every few hours, these fragile creatures might sicken and die.
This tender chore is an act of preservation as much as it is devotion, for these sheep are Leicester Longwools (pronounced “Lester”), a historic breed that once vanished from North America. They made a comeback, thanks to Shirley and folks like her whose life's work is the conservation of so-called heritage breeds—animals that were once popular and numerous but that are now often barely hanging on to existence. As manager of Colonial Williamsburg's Rare Breeds program, Shirley oversees the formidable task of carrying on these old bloodlines.
Shirley is one of a growing number of advocates breathing new life into breeds that lost the foothold they once had on American pastures, breeds like Milking Shorthorn cattle and Silver Spangled Hamburg chickens. These animals offer more than just peculiar names or features; they tell of survival against tough odds and of a long-lost relationship that people once had with animals. They're the living products of nature and the human hand, expressing traits in their appearance, texture and flavor that are hard to find anymore. Every time one of these breeds goes extinct, so goes a slice of history cultivated over hundreds of years. When that happens, the idiosyncrasies these breeds added to the human experience are gone forever.
Shirley is emphatic that one way to stop those losses is to educate the public about the virtues heritage breeds offer consumers. The public will come around if there are advocates willing to put in the work. And that work takes on many forms, including midnight feedings in a quiet stable.
Animals have been part of Shirley's life from early on. She grew up on a dairy farm in north-central Maryland and as a teenager participated in a 4-H international youth exchange program to New Zealand. She has been head of Colonial Williamsburg's Rare Breeds program for a quarter century now and serves on the Board of Directors of The Livestock Conservancy, an organization devoted to reviving heritage breeds.
If nothing else, Shirley's lifelong immersion in animal husbandry has fostered a crack-of-dawn gumption that lets her accomplish a day's worth of duties before most people have finished their coffee. Many mornings, long before visitors trickle into the restored town, Shirley makes the rounds of Colonial Williamsburg in a souped-up golf cart, offering cheerful greetings, not to mention hay and grain, to the cattle, sheep and chickens that populate the Historic Area's pastures.
These face-to-face encounters are critical because they allow Shirley to look for signs of illness or injury and take corrective action at once. On one recent inspection, for instance, she discovered a ram that had broken his leg.
For all the pasture time Shirley spends with her charges, though, she spends as much brokering the sale of sheep or fertilized chicken eggs, answering e-mails or making calls to veterinarians. These day-to-day tasks for heritage breeds have special urgency. Every preventable death is a big loss for the entire breed. Every farmer willing to take on a new herd is a milestone in a breed's recovery.
"I may show up to work with a list of five things to do. Sometimes I get all five done and sometimes I get none. Part of the fun of this job is that you never know what's going to happen."
Multi-purpose farm animals are now a rarity. Agriculture transformed in the 20th century, with producers selecting breeds for a single purpose—lean meat or egg production, for instance—and mating the best individuals with those goals in mind.
Before farming became the science of mass, cheap food production, livestock and poultry were less prolific but more versatile than animals today. Farmers (that is to say, most Americans until well into the 20th century) didn't keep one breed of chickens for meat and another for eggs. Their barnyards might have been full of chickens that resembled Dominiques, a breed that was passable both in the nesting box and in the stewpot, and that now has a home at Colonial Williamsburg.
Such was the case with the Milking Devons, whose Colonial ancestors were the all-purpose tools of middling farmsteads. The original cattle from Devonshire, England were strong but docile, making them ideal for the time-consuming drudgery of plowing fields (a job done both by cows and by bulls). Devonshire cows also furnished thick, creamy milk, ideal for butter and cheese. And when Devons' best days were behind them, people ate their flesh or traded it for other useful commodities.
Sheep, chickens and a host of other domestic animals pulled double (or triple) duty, too, furnishing milk, eggs, meat, lard, down and leather that people fashioned into products. As the Leicester Longwool’s name implies, the sheep provided prodigious amounts of fleece as often as it filled yeomen's bellies.
Sometimes animals performed jobs that have all but disappeared. Among the chickens Shirley tends are Nankins, a bantam breed (meaning they're about half the size of a normal chicken) whose stature and broodiness made them perfect for incubating the eggs of quails, a bird that was a staple on dining room tables of the gentry.
Within the last century, though, all but a select few breeds, such as Holstein-Friesian cows for dairy or Leghorn chickens for white eggs, lost out when demand for their products plummeted. But heritage breed supporters insist uniformity among a handful of genotypes can be dangerous and that the genetic diversity afforded by less popular domestic livestock could be useful again in the future.
That's why Shirley goes to great lengths to promote heritage breeds. Her endeavors range from daily talks about Colonial Williamsburg's Rare Breeds program to establishing satellite flocks of heritage breed sheep to protect against an epidemic or natural disaster.
Shirley's passion for her craft hasn't gone unnoticed; the Livestock Conservancy granted her the 2009 Bixby-Sponenberg Conservation Award, noting her work in safeguarding Milking Devons, Leicester Longwools and Nankins, among other breeds.
Shirley will be the first to tell you she doesn't deserve all the credit; she knows that an institution as large as Colonial Williamsburg has the space and the financial wherewithal to support a breeding program. But everyone from farmers to urbanites can help—has to help, Shirley insists.
Read a book. Wear a scarf spun from Leicester Longwool yarn. Buy a pound of Milking Devon meat or a dozen Dominique eggs. Those simple gestures are as much a nod to the people who came before us as they are to the animals they tended. "Go back far enough, and all our ancestors were farmers," Shirley says. "This is really about saving our collective heritage."