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Prickles the Sheep Returns Home After Seven Years on the Lam(b)

After missing years of shears, the voluminous creature had ballooned to about five times the size of a typical sheep

Prickles, a barefaced merino sheep who went unshorn for seven years after fleeing her home in Tasmania during a spate of 2013 bushfires (Courtesy of Alice Gray)
smithsonianmag.com

When a devastating spate of bushfires hit the Australian island state of Tasmania in 2013, locals like Alice Gray found themselves caught completely off guard. The flames, which burned through some 50,000 acres statewide, destroyed much of the Gray family’s farm, consuming miles of fencing that ran along its border.

In the chaos, several livestock animals living on the farm fled for their lives—including a sheep, now known as Prickles, who was then little more than a tiny lamb. Seven years later, she has wandered back into the Grays’ lives, swaddled in a gloriously rotund wool coat after nearly a decade unshorn.

“She’s quite a sight to behold and she’s quite glorious,” Gray tells Carol Off, host of CBC Radio’s “As It Happens.”

As Georgie Burgess reports for ABC Radio Hobart, Prickles’ extended absence wasn’t necessarily by choice. After getting understandably spooked by the calamitous events of 2013, the sheep apparently wandered too far afield, getting stuck in a 200-acre bush block on the other side of the family’s fence, which was reconstructed in the wake of the fire.

With thousands of sheep under their care, the Grays didn’t initially notice Prickles’ absence. But years after the fire, Gray’s father-in-law spotted something unusual in footage captured by a night vision camera installed on the property: a “great white, fluffy thing” that hobbled up to the lens and peered down into it, as Gray tells CBC Radio.

Befuddled, Gray and her husband were unsure what to make of the virtual sighting. But during a recent barbecue for son Barclay’s sixth birthday, Prickles appeared again—this time, in the absurdly woolly flesh.

The family had been looking for a change of scenery during self-isolation and were in the middle of a sausage cookout on the property’s back paddock when they spied “this big round thing,” according to Gray, who recalls thinking, “Oh my God, I think that is that crazy sheep we saw in the video.”

What started as a birthday jaunt turned into a wild sheep chase spearheaded by Gray’s husband. About fifteen minutes later, he called Gray, “puffing and panting,” explaining that he’d leapt atop Prickles, trapping her in the corner of a paddock. With only his body weighing the massive, puffball-like sheep down, Gray’s husband desperately needed reinforcements.

Working together, the family, with immense difficulty, wrangled Prickles into the back of a utility vehicle. After missing seven years’ worth of shears, the voluminous creature had ballooned to about five times the size of a typical sheep.

“She is absolutely round,” Gray tells ABC Radio Hobart. “She's a great big fluffy ball of wool.”

Prickles had also snared all sorts of dirt and barbs in her expansive fleece, explains Gray, inspiring her new moniker.

Still nimble despite her extreme proportions, Prickles was quick to adjust back to life on the farm, where she spends time with the (much smaller) members of her former flock and has even been spotted chasing some of the Grays’ turkeys and ducks. By all accounts, puffy Prickles also appears to be in good health: As a barefaced merino sheep, she doesn’t grow wool on her face—a fact that ensured her ability to see and survive in the wilds of Tasmania remained unimpeded.

Ultimately, Prickle’s cotton-ball-like visage isn’t sustainable. The Grays have scheduled her shearing for May 1 and are currently holding a fundraising contest to benefit the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), bringing aid to refugees affected by COVID-19. Run on the website My Cause, the campaign asks people to guess the weight of Prickles’ wool after paying a donation as an “entry fee.” The winner will receive a certificate of excellence.

Prickles, meanwhile, is destined for the retirement paddock, where she will spend the rest of her days after her fleece is shorn.

Notably, Prickles isn’t the first sheep to go endure an extended interval without shearing. The record-holder remains Canberra’s Chris the Merino, who was found sporting a hefty 90-pound fleece in 2015, according to the Guardian’s Luke Henriques-Gomes. It remains to be seen whether Prickles will punch above this woolly weight.

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Undark magazine, Popular Science and more. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University, and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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