Faro's Sheep: Fascinating Animals In a Mountainous Splendour
Every fall sheep gather in the mountains and cliff sides around Faro to spend the winter. The winds that blow over the Pelly Mountains help to keep the mountain sides clear of snow, and the south facing slopes gather warmth from the sun. The cliff sides are not only a good place to forage on the grasses that remain from the summer, the also provide a secure home for the sheep. Sheep must be wary of the wolves, coyotes, wolverines, lynx and bears that frequent the Faro area. If any of these predators come looking for a meal the sheep have only one weapon to fight back with: their hooves! Sheep hooves are well adapted for climbing and gripping on rocky slopes, and once in this terrain the predators look clumsy in comparison. But there is a catch, the best food is usually away from the cliffs, so sheep venture daily out from the steepest cliffs in search of food, but always keeping an eye open for anyone tha tmight have them for a meal.
In winter there are about 80-90 sheep right close to Faro. The distinctive colour of each individual means that it's possible to get to know each and every one of them personally. And they certainly do have personalities, from the adventurous youngsters who spend time practising their climbing skills in some of the most unlikely places, to the wizened caution of an old ewe, the sheep are a real pleasure to watch. Some of the most exciting moments are during the November - December pre rut and rut, when massive horned rams can be seen battling it out over ewes, and later discerning ewes can be spotted as they either choose to mate or 'run for the hills' from rams that they would rather avoid.
Come spring tiny grey-white lambs dot the mountain sides. They dodge and dart and play with one another as their mothers, tired and exhausted from the winter, look on. The mothers must have good eyes for danger since a circling golden eagle can make a quick meal of a lamb. Often you'll see a mother craning her neck skywards, with her little one nestled beside her as an eagle soars overhead. The moment when a diving eagle is fended off by the horns of a mother is one you will never forget! Once the lambs are large enough they head off into the higher mountains to spend their summers in the rich grassy meadows. A hike into the Mt. Mye area in summer can be rewarded by a glimpse into the lives of sheep in their breathtakingly beautiful summer home.
Fannin's sheep and the mystery of sheep coat colour
Fannin's sheep were named after John Fannin, the first curator of the Royal British Columbia Museum. The name was given to these sheep after a ram specimen was taken in which the neck and face were white but the trunk or 'saddle' was dark. However, it was later noticed that individuals within any population vary greatly in their colour. Some have darker necks and very dark trunk areas, while others are very light. It was thought that for this reason colour is not a good way to distinguish differences in the sheep.
Recently, we've found out that hybridization with bighorn sheep is the likely reason for the dark colour found in Stone's and Fannin's sheep. When an all white Dall's sheep and a bighorn sheep bred at the Yukon game farm, the lamb turned out to look a lot like a Fannin's sheep! We've also found genetic evidence to back this up that shows that Stone's sheep in British Columbia interbred with bighorn sheep before the last ice age.
But the mystery of sheep colouration doesn't end there. Our research in Faro has shown that sheep with darker faces tend to be dominant and get the most mating opportunities. It's possible that a dark face along with large horns is used as a signal to other sheep. Rams may let others know about their fighting prowess when sporting a dark face, and ewes may be attracted to the darkest rams.