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Preparing a team of horses to pull a carriage

A Day with the Colonial Williamsburg Coach and Livestock Staff

Elaine Shirley, manager of Colonial Williamsburg's Rare Breeds program, shares a typical day in the life of our busy Coach and Livestock Department staff.

Today is an early day. The entire staff arrives at 7:00 a.m. to unload a tractor-trailer load of hay. We throw the hay off the truck and carry and pile it by hand. Once the stacks are high enough, we use the electric elevator to stack the hay even higher. By 8:00 a.m. the trailer is empty and we're cleaning up. One staff member goes out to do "lots," the twice-daily rounds of the Historic Area to feed, check water, and make sure all the animals are happy. Another staff member departs to pick up a load of barley from a local farmer. (Barley makes up a large part of our sheep and cattle feed.) I head off to the Benjamin Powell House for a photo shoot with a basket of chickens.

At the Powell House, the photographer wants the chickens to peck around in the grass and look picturesque in front of several items that will be sold in the Colonial Williamsburg Catalog. I place a leather leashes on the chickens to make them easier to catch when the photography session is done. I sprinkle some grain in the grass to keep their attention, and set the chickens out for the photographer. The challenges during the shoot include a hen flying up into a tree, the "actors" scattering when a hawk flies by, and chickens with the "wrong end" pointed at the camera half the time! After several rolls of film are taken, we have some very good shots.

Dr. Lee  checks Bert’s molars for sharp edgesBy mid-morning, we all meet back at the stables. The veterinarian is here working on a horse's mouth, trimming teeth that are rubbing the inside of his cheek. We set up an appointment to do cow pregnancy checks and to write health papers for calves that will be sold to a farmer in Maine. We also want him to look at a lamb with an inverted eyelid. Sometimes, lambs are born with eyelids that have the edges turned under, and opening and closing the lid causes the eyelashes to irritate their eyeballs. Usually, rolling down the eyelid and pinching it to cause a slight amount of bruising solves the problem. But that hasn't worked for this lamb, so the vet uses a tiny metal staple to pull and hold the skin of the eyelid slightly to the side. We'll remove the staple in a few days and the eye will be fine. The vet also stains the lamb's eye with a bright green fluid to check for abrasions or ulcerations on the surface of the eye-a problem that would require treatment with twice-daily application of eye ointment.

A Dominique hen and chicks in a brooder penNext, it's time to check on our incubator. We have a variety of rare breed chickens in the Historic Area. We normally buy chicks from a hatchery, but one of our breeds, the Nankin Bantam, is so rare that no hatcheries have them. We purchase chicks from hatcheries so they know there is a market for their rare breed chickens.We check the temperature and add some water to the incubator. The eggs in the incubator are due to hatch tomorrow and, as expected, a few of the eggs are "peeping." It's very strange to open the incubator and have several eggs peeping at you! To prepare for tomorrow's hatchings, we also have to set up a brooder pen for the new chicks. It's very important to have food available for the chicks and to keep them warm and dry. Sometimes, we have chicks from several hatches living in different brooders. We try to hatch chicks each month during the spring and summer.

Shearing a sheep of its fleeceAfter lunch, we change into our 18th-century clothing to present a sheep talk. It's sheep shearing season, so we take a big basket containing shears and a tarp over to the sheep pen. My co-worker catches a sheep from the pasture and we take him across the street to a pen under the shade of a tree. We place the tarp on the ground and begin shearing. Shearing always draws a large crowd. It's hard to concentrate on shearing and answer questions at the same time, so one of us shears while the other talks with guests. The crowd for these talks is always diverse. Today, a retired sheep farmer tells us we should shear the modern way, using electric clippers. That is much faster, but it's not the way it was done in the 18th century. A small animal veterinarian then asks some questions, trying to remember information from the large animal classes she took many years ago. Mainly, people are amazed the sheep lay so still for shearing. They ask how long the shearing will take and what we will do with the wool. After 45 minutes, the sheep is shorn, the fleece looks good, and the sheepshearer is in one piece. We stand the sheep up next to the fence so several children can pet him. One young man pets him and exclaims, "Oh, it's warm!"

Milking a Red DevonLater in the afternoon, we move from the sheep talk to a practice cattle talk. While one co-worker does the afternoon "lots," two of us go to work with the cows. Milking is part of the cattle talk. We start practicing a few weeks ahead of time so the cows know where to stand and how to behave and the calves learn to be shut in a pen during the talk. While they eat their grain and hay, we brush the cows to get them used to being handled and having people walk around them. As with the sheep talk, one of us works with the cow while the other talks with guests. After a half hour, the milking is done, the cows and calves are turned loose, and we head back to the stables to lock up for the day at 5:00 p.m..

It's been a busy day! One of the best parts of the job is that it's always different and very seasonal. There are lambs and chicks every spring (calves and foals can be born any time of the year) and we get to work with the renewal of life. Through the summer months, we see the animals grow and prosper. In the fall, we have to store enough food for the animals to last the winter. A local farmer provides the hay, but we have to figure out how much we need and pack it all into the barn.

One of the hardest parts of the job is the fact that it is every day. The animals depend on us to feed and care for them every day, when the weather is good, when the weather is bad, on weekends, and even on Christmas Day. The seasonality and daily chores are things farmers have always had to deal with.

All in all, the good, interesting, and fun parts of the job (including working outside) far outweigh the few hard parts of the job.


This article was written by Elaine Shirley, Supervisor, Rare Breeds Program, Department of Coach and Livestock, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.



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