WAUPOOS ISLAND — Drive through Prince Edward County in the spring or late summer and you might spot an unusual sight: a herd of 150 or so sheep floating on a barge.
But it’s just another day for Matthew Fleguel and Elizabeth Johnston of Waupoos Island Sheep Farm, who received the Ontario Sheep Pasture Award from Ontario Sheep last month.
The farm started in the 1980s when Fleguel’s parents showed up looking to buy some sheep. The then-tenant was going out of business and his landlord, the Catholic Church, was looking for someone else to take over. His parents thought it looked like a beautiful place to live and, he insists, maybe wanted to prove it was possible to run a sheep farm on the island. The bought the land and later bought more land on the mainland where they now live.
These days the farmers float the 2,000 ewes on their barge over to the island in the spring and bring them back to the mainland in the late fall. As the snow starts falling they come back across to munch on corn stalks and stover on 150 acres of owned land and 600 acres of rented land.
The barge can only fit about 150 animals, so bringing them all the 1-km jaunt across the water takes days. Walking them across the ice took about an hour. The barge limits what equipment they can bring across. Water levels can be problematic: too high or too low and anything with wheels struggles, though the sheep manage it just fine. And if the winds are too high, they just have to wait until they die down. Fleguel brings the barge across with just a 40-horsepower fishing boat, since anything bigger wouldn’t be maneuverable enough and wouldn’t be able to handle the shallows.
When Fleguel was growing his parents took the flock across the ice when it was at least 12-inches thick. That made for a few close calls going out with a chainsaw to check. He’s fallen in more than once, including once putting a 4-wheeler through the ice. But he was well-prepared with a survival suit. It probably didn’t hurt that 4-wheelers float either, and after dragging himself out they were able to go back and retrieve the four-wheeler the next day.
The ice has gotten more unreliable in recent years. “Whenever I hear of someone in the Arctic struggling because the ice isn’t as reliable, I relate to that.”
The farmers don’t play around when it comes to pasture. They’re big believers in rotational grazing and also offer some usual treats from their flock: Sorghum-Sudangrass and kale in particular for the lambs, and long-season corn for the ewes. They’ve been having great success with both. The feed-mix is “great for putting pounds on lambs,” and Fleguel would stake his 2,000-head herd against a combine any day. “You won’t find a kernel on the ground.” They’re more limited in what they can do on the island. The barge only holds about 15 tonnes and equipment can’t be any wider than 12 feet. Said Fleguel: “We stick more to just frost-seeding legumes into perennial pastures to help keep them healthy and top-dressing fertilizers on perennial pastures.”
Of course, they keep farming on the island for a reason. Apart from just being a beautiful spot, it’s a ready-made protection against predators. The sheep industry struggles with predation more than any other, so a built-in, kilometre-wide moat is an obvious bonus. Waupoos Island also isn’t nearly as developed as the mainland, Fleguel said, which makes for large, contiguous areas to pasture animals. There’s always a breeze on the island, which is a bonus during the heat of the summer but also keeps the frost away in late fall.
The island is also a part of family history. The treks across the ice are becoming the stuff of local legend. The barge itself has been working since the 1950s and is probably one of Ontario’s oldest working pieces of farm equipment Fleguel said. When his parents took over, “I’m sure lots of people said it couldn’t be done. (But) 40 years and another generation later, it’s still going.”