Alpacas and Wolves and Sheep, Oh My! Meet the Animals of Williamsburg

From rare domesticated breeds to wild land, river and air creatures, Greater Williamsburg is alive with a Noah’s Ark worth of species.

Clydesdale's at Busch Gardens Williamsburg
Sheep in Colonial Williamsburg
Betty Boop, a mini donkey at Fox Wire Farm
Boarder Collies at Busch Gardens Williamsburg
Oxen in Colonial Williamsburg

You might not realize it, but Greater Williamsburg is where the wild things — and some of their rare domesticated friends — roam. You just need to know where to look.

Whether you're walking down Duke of Gloucester Street in Colonial Williamsburg, padding over the paths at the Jamestown Settlement, exploring the world of Busch Gardens or ambling across Historic Jamestowne, you'll find a surprising array of critters, everything from bald eagles to river otters to rare breeds of domesticated animals dating back centuries.

Rare Finds at Colonial Williamsburg

Wander through the historic area of Colonial Williamsburg and you may come across Liberty, Colonial Williamsburg's first mascot, a Briard dog who walks the area with its costumed handler. Like everything here, it’s a piece of living history. Or is that a living piece of history?

Briards originally descended from the sheepdogs of medieval France, earning a reputation for being intensely loyal and a stout defender of shepherds’ flocks. Unlike many breeds, they have not changed in behavior or appearance in the last 200 years, making them a good choice for Colonial Williamsburg.     

But Liberty is not the only unusual breed in the historic area. Since 1986, Colonial Williamsburg has operated a rare breeds program to preserve genetic diversity in livestock. The program reintroduced the Leicester Longwool sheep to the United States in 1990, according to Elaine Shirley, the longtime manager of rare breeds. Now, about 130 breeders across the country raise the sheep, known for their long, lustrous coats, which falls in ringlets. Sounds like something you'd wear? Wool from the sheep is for sale in some of the gift shops if you’ve got the knitting chops.     

The program also breeds the American Cream Draft horse, with just about 500 in existence in North America; the American Milking Devon, known for milk high in butterfat; Durham and Devon/Lineback Oxen, the trucks of the 18th century; and a couple breeds of chickens, Dominique and Nankin Bantams. The program recently added the Cleveland Bay horse, England’s oldest breed of horse.    

In colonial times, animals lived throughout the historic area. "We've had livestock at Colonial Williamsburg from the very beginning," Shirley says. "They've been an important part of Williamsburg from the start."

Sheep, poultry and some cattle are always in the historic area. Horses are often there. A talk about rare breeds takes place each Tuesday and Saturday starting at 11 a.m. at the rear of the Randolph House in the historic area.

Having animals of the period throughout the area as well as maintaining the breeding program is part educational outreach, showcasing animals that are rare today. People learn about them and then may be able to find them in a farmer’s market. "It's a great shop window for these breeds," she says. "A huge part of this is getting folks interested in these animals, getting farmers interested, getting consumers interested. A big part is educating consumers, too, about where their food and fiber is coming from. It accomplishes a lot of goals."

High Flying, Howling Times at Busch Gardens     

At Busch Gardens, there's a head-spinning array of animal adventures.

Visit Eagle Ridge and meet tough survivors, American Bald Eagles that have been injured and are unable to live in the wild. Duck into Wolf Haven and watch “The Secret Life of Predators,” where rats, raptors, wolves and foxes give you a glimpse into their rarely seen lives. Slip into Highland Stables and celebrate old Scottish traditions. Border collies will demonstrate traditional herding methods of blackface sheep. And, of course, the legendary Clydesdales are there on display. Over at Lorikeet Glen, there's every color you can imagine and then some in the plumage of the birds in the aviary. While the brilliant colors may first grab your attention, you'll linger for the songs these birds sing. If you’re lucky, one my swoop down and sit on your shoulder. Finally, don’t miss “More…Pet Shenanigans,” a popular show featuring rescued and shelter animals.   

If you want more time or an inside look at these attractions, check out the various ticket options including the Zoo Keeper Experience and Wolf Training Up Close. 

Wild History at Historic Jamestowne and Jamestown Settlement

Jamestown Island — the location of Historic Jamestowne, the original site of the first permanent English settlement in America — looks much like it did 400 years ago. Although the island was farmed in the 18th and 19th centuries, it has been allowed to return to the wild state the original settlers saw. 

“There are many branches of this river which run flowing through the woods with great plenty of fish of all kinds; as for sturgeon all the world cannot be compared to it. There is also great store of deer, both red and fallow; there are bears, foxes, otters, beavers, musk cats, and wild beasts unknown," wrote George Percy, one of those colonists, in 1607.   

Bald eagle nests are spread across the island. Osprey soar overhead, hunting their prey. Under the dark waters of the James River lurk sturgeon up to six feet long, though there are far fewer than in the days of Capt. John Smith, who wrote, "We had more sturgeon than could be devoured by dog and man. . . .”     

Nearby at Jamestown Settlement, a re-creation of America’s first permanent English colony, chickens have free rein inside the fort. Look hard and you may find a few eggs. Up in the tops of trees, you'll see several eagle nests on the property. There are deer about, of course, and you'll find their hides inside the Powhatan Village shelters.   

The area is also home to red fox, red-tailed hawks, raccoons, turtles, muskrat, river otters, wild turkey, deer, blue herons and so much more. Keep your eyes open and you may spot some of them.

Furry Alpacas at Fox Wire Farm 

It’s hard not to fall in love with the cuddly alpacas at Fox Wire Farm in nearby Toano. On 200 acres of farmland, pasture and woods, the farm is home to dozens of alpaca as well as kune kune pigs, chickens, horses, mini donkeys and llamas. Farm tours, which allow you to interact with the animals, are available twice a day by appointment. The farm also hosts an annual alpaca-shearing day that accepts volunteers. The Fox Wire Farm Store & Boutique sells alpaca wool items.

Soaring Eagles at the Center for Conservation Biology

Look up and you may spy a bald eagle soaring overhead that is very likely being tracked with GPS transmitters at the Center for Conservation Biology. Since 2007, the center has maintained one of the largest eagle-tracking projects in the world, revealing patterns of movements throughout eastern North America as well as more than 200 communal roosts. Via the center’s blog, you can follow the aerial adventures of a vagabond raptor named Grace, who soars over the coast from the Chesapeake Bay down to North Carolina's Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.

The center, which originated at the College of William & Mary in a joint venture with Virginia Commonwealth University, also hosts Osprey Watch, a citizen-reporting project that maps nests worldwide.

If your visit inspires you to think more about locally grown food, check out the best of farm-to-table and sea-to-table restaurants in Greater Williamsburg. If you are looking for more outdoor adventures, check out family fun ideas for every taste.