Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Tar Heels' Dying Breed

By Jennifer M. Kendall

This Saturday, thousands of Tar Heel faithful will pack Kenan Stadium for the first Carolina football game of the season. As kick-off time nears, Ramses, the coveted UNC mascot will strut down the sidelines - beaming Tar Heel pride from his radiant blue horns. But behind the wooly coat and massive horns, Ramses hides a secret that few know – he’s part of a dying breed.

A Carolina tradition since 1924, Ramses the Dorset Horn sheep may soon be a mere legend. On any given game day the 60,000 fans that pack Kenan Stadium outnumber the estimated global population of Dorset Horns. In 2009, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy listed the breed on its Conservation Priority List under the Watch Category, citing a global population of fewer than 10,000 breeding animals.

On a hot, steamy August afternoon, I met with the Hogan family of Hogan’s Magnolia View Farm, just outside of Chapel Hill. The Hogan family has kept Ramses for the past 85 years, helping to give the Dorset Horn breed a future, blue-horned ram after blue-horned ram.

“My family has been on this farm since 1757. I’m a 9th generation farmer and 4th generation ram keeper,” said Rob Hogan. In 1924, the same year the ram was introduced as the mascot, Hogan’s great-grandfather assumed the duties of the ram keeper. “My great-granddad, Clay Hogan, had four sons and two were UNC alums. Henry Hogan played on the football team. I think between the farm’s proximity to campus and the family connection to the university - it just made sense,” said Hogan.

The current Ramses is the 18th Horned Dorset kept by the Hogan family to go by this name. University archives suggest the first UNC Horned Dorset came from Texas in 1924, when then head cheerleader Vic Huggins suggested UNC get a live mascot to honor famed Jack Merrit, known to his fans as the "Battering Ram."

The current Ramses is not a direct relative of the first UNC ram, but since 1996 there has been a direct line of succeeding males. Hogan, a cattle farmer by profession, says it’s a little different from raising cattle. “With cattle, you switch out the bull every so often to keep genetic diversity, but since we always have to have a male – Ramses regularly gets a new wife from another flock.”

This year, Ramses wife’s name is Tulip. Tulip was given to the Hogans from the Cassell family, in Wytheville, VA, right in the center of Hokie country. Yes, the baby Ramses may have some Hokie blood in its veins. One great benefit of the Horned Dorset breed is that they can reproduce out of season, a quality not seen in most wooled breeds. If properly managed, Horned Dorset ewes can give birth three times over the course of just two years.

So why is the Dorset Horn sheep an endangered breed? The “blow to the horns” came from one of UNC’s biggest rivals, North Carolina State University. The rivalry went beyond the football field and into the genetic arena. In 1949, a Horned Dorset ram on an N.C. State farm sired four hornless ewes. Over the next five years, the late livestock scientists Dr. Lemuel Goode and Sam Buchanan bred the Horned Dorset ram to those four ewes and all other ewes in the flock. Finally in 1954, a ewe delivered twin rams, one with horns and one without. Within 20 years, 70 percent of all registered Dorsets were hornless (polled).

Rob Hogan has his own ties to N.C. State. Hogan graduated from State’s Agricultural Institute in the late seventies. “People ask me that all the time,” Hogan said when I asked him how a State graduate felt about being the guardian of UNC’s prized mascot. “People say it doesn’t make sense, but it makes all the sense,” Hogan offered. “The only school in this area at that time that offered agricultural education was State and knowing I was going to take over the family farm, it made all the sense to go there.” When asked how his college peers felt about his family housing the ram, he jokingly responded, “Well, you knew not to bring something like that up.”

And that led me to my next question which Hogan also knew was coming, “Who do you pull for on State vs. UNC game days?” He replied with a nonchalant, “On those days, I can’t lose.”
And with that, it was time to go find Ramses the Horned Dorset for his one-on-one. In the heat of the afternoon, he was cooling his “heels” in the wooded area of the pasture and close-by was Tulip, his current mate. Hogan approached him and convinced him to give up his shady spot for a bit.

Hogan commented, “Obviously he has a good temperament. He goes down in front of 60,000 people on any given Saturday and the bands are playing, fireworks are going off, people are hooting and hollering, and Ramses is unscathed.” Hogan says Ramses’ docile nature is just part of the breed along with some proper handling and training.

And out into the pasture came Ramses in all his horned glory. He was quite muddy and his horns were faded, but Hogan assured me that come Friday night, game rituals will commence. “Every Friday night before a home game we put him out in the backyard and he gets a shampoo.” After his shampoo comes the most important part. “After he’s clean, we paint his horns blue.”

Hogan’s entire family joins in the pre-game prepping of Ramses. Hogan’s Aunt Carolyn makes Ramses game attire which is his Carolina blue blanket. Hogan’s sons help with cleaning and prepping the animal and on game day they all enjoy the ride to town, with Ramses in the back of the pick-up truck.

As Ramses grazed in the pasture, Hogan chuckled as he shared some of his favorite questions people ask. “They always want to know where I found a sheep with blue horns. Or, they want to know if it’s male or female – never mind the two foot long testicles on the ram.” Hogan’s wife Ann added, “They always ask if he’s real.” Ram-napping stories are also a regular source of laughter for the two.

As I touched the faded blue paint on Ramses horns I was reminiscent of seasons past. While admiring this symbol of Tar Heel tradition, I could not help but wonder about the future of the breed and many others. Over 170 breeds of livestock and poultry are considered a Conservation Priority by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, and the list is growing.

So this Saturday and every game day, amongst the cheers, and bands and excitement – thank the Hogans for all that they do for this breed and thank all the other Horned Dorset breeders out there helping to keep the breed alive. And when Ramses the coveted UNC mascot struts down those sidelines - beaming Tar Heel pride from his radiant blue horns – don’t take him for granted.

For more information on how to help save heritage breeds of livestock, visit

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