Earlier this month, Susan Watson’s entire flock of sheep was stolen directly from her barn.
During the early evening hours on Sept. 19, someone brazenly backed a livestock trailer up to Watson’s barn, loaded up all the sheep, and drove away, according to Watson, who filed a report with the Maine State Police.
Six days later, all the sheep were back, milling around outside their pasture fence.
This 21st century livestock rustling story included endless searching by land and from above, trying to convince law enforcement to take the case seriously and working with an internet sleuth chasing down leads online for Watson’s flock, which is worth more than $15,000.
It began when Watson left to have Sunday dinner with her daughter and grandchildren. By the time she got home around 8:30 p.m., it was already dark and she assumed her sheep were back in the barn for the night.
Watson breeds and raises her sheep on her Midsummer Night’s Meadow Farm in Garland for their fiber, which she turns into a variety of woolen products.
“In the morning, I got up to go do my chores and there was not a single sheep anywhere,” Watson said.
Watson described a feeling of panic as she searched all of her fields, woods and outbuildings of her farm. She called neighbors who started looking up and down her road. Someone brought a drone in to conduct an aerial search of the area. There was no sign of the missing sheep.
“A flock of 22 sheep is going to have a fairly large footprint, so to speak,” said Watson, who noted that the animals would leave a trail and droppings.
It’s also not in a sheep’s nature to just wander off, Watson said. And if they did somehow manage to unlock their pasture gate, get out, close and lock it behind them to go on a group walk, she said they would come back and get as close to their barn as possible.
Which is what she told the state police.
“The state police told me there was nothing they could do without a suspect to investigate,” Watson said. “Without a suspect, they told me it would be ‘like searching for a flock in a haystack.’”
Undaunted, Watson reported the missing animals to the Garland code enforcement officer. Her hope, she said, was if someone showed up with 22 sheep out of the blue, they would investigate to see if they were hers.
The days went on and there were no sightings.
“It was like they had just vanished,” Watson said. “Then I told a friend of mine in Newport and she posted about the missing sheep on Facebook.”
That post caught the attention of Nancy Neal of Honey Brook Farm in Garland. Neal, according to Watson, is something of an internet whiz with a large online presence and experience using social media to recover a lost animal.
Neal was not about to let livestock rustlers get away with it. Not in her town. Not on her watch.
“I had a macaw stolen when I lived in Florida and I hunted her down using social media,” Neal said. “These sheep were rustled right here in my town and I grew up in California in cattle country so it all just set the hairs on my neck on end.”
Neal went to work sharing the description of the missing sheep on social media sites she administers and of which she is a member. In all, she figures her posts reached more than 20,000 people and were shared hundreds of times. She also created a spreadsheet of New England auction houses most likely to receive a large number of sheep.
Soon after, there was a break in the case. It turned out some of Watson’s neighbors had actually witnessed a livestock trailer loading up the sheep directly from Watson’s barn and driving off that Sunday evening.
“They thought nothing of it,” Watson said. “Livestock trailers and loading animals is such a common sight around here.”
The description of the truck and trailer gave the state police something to go on and investigate, Watson said. In addition, Neal posted that information online far and wide.
A second break, of sorts, came with the discovery of a Craigslist post advertising 22 sheep for sale up in Aroostook County matching the description of Watson’s missing flock. Friends of Watson’s responded to the ad on her behalf indicating interest in the sheep. But there was no followup and the post disappeared.
Meanwhile, according to Watson, the state police had paid a visit to an individual matching the description of the person seen loading up her sheep and who owned a truck and trailer like the one seen by the neighbors.
“The day after the police went to go see this guy, I was at a craft show in New Gloucester all day,” Watson said. “When I got home from the show, all 22 sheep were back at my farm.”
The sheep were outside the fence, Watson said, and other than being skinnier after being gone for almost a week, they were otherwise okay.
“They certainly had not been lost out in the woods all that time, no matter what all those nimrods who think they know so much said,” Watson said. “If those sheep had been anywhere near the woods for even a minute they would have burrs, sticks and leaves all over their wool and they were clean as a whistle.”
The motive behind the theft remains a mystery. Watson suspects whoever had taken them planned to sell them at an out of state auction. On the hoof for meat, the flock is worth more than $15,000, she said. Individual fleeces for fiber products can bring up to $450.
For now, Watson is just happy to have her sheep back home where she can tend them and fatten them back up. She also plans to install security cameras.
“I was able to sleep for the first time in a week after they were back,” she said. “I am so thankful to everyone who helped and am just shocked at the power of social media.”
A dispatcher with the Maine State Police in Penobscot County on Monday was unable to confirm the status of the investigation into the original report.
Where the sheep had been and what they had been doing for six days also remains a mystery, Watson said.
“You really can’t make any of this up,” Watson said. “It just gets curiouser and curiouser.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Susan Watson in the photo captions. They have been updated.