Mary Castell helps you decide on a breed of sheep

From the beginning, it’s necessary to be clear why you wish to keep sheep. When the answer is “to keep the paddock mown”, the best move is to ask a neighbour if they know of anyone who would like to rent it, or graze it from time to time. When no suggestions are forthcoming, you can put up a notice in the local farm supply merchants, giving the location and acreage of the land. This solution will only be of interest if the paddock is well fenced, doesn’t open onto a public highway, and has a water supply. When the above solution isn’t appropriate, because the object is to keep sheep, and possibly breed from them, the choice is very wide. There are over 60 British pure breeds, and in addition, a number of imported breeds. Some breeds are very large and heavy, suitable for breeding animals with large carcasses for the meat trade, others are also very large and produce top quality lustre wool, mainly used in the production of top quality textiles. These breeds are difficult to handle by the inexperienced, and may require appropriate handling equipment. The location of the holding is also significant, since the many British sheep breeds have arisen from their adaptation to their environment, as well as the purpose for which man has bred them. The sheep breeds of the parts of the country with extreme climates, such as the Lake District and the Welsh and Scottish mountains, and, to a lesser extent, the Yorkshire and Derbyshire Dales and the moors of the south west, have fleeces that protect them from rain storms and biting winds. Therefore, it’s necessary to acquire a local breed, and only invest in sheep with softer fleeces when the holding is situated in the lowlands of the Midlands or further south. It’s unlikely that an attractive little Southdown sheep, with a coat of exceptionally fine fleece, would survive for long in the Lake District. In addition, if you have children, their needs must be considered. In general, sheep are docile animals, but since they have little natural protection, apart from horns in some breeds, they’re easily frightened by the sudden movements of small children and may react in unexpected ways. Therefore, small children, and any children not used to sheep, should be accompanied by an adult when visiting the flock. Rams are a special problem: they are unpredictable creatures whose weight, and occasional aggressive behaviour, can make them dangerous, even if nature hasn’t provided them with horns, so children should be kept away from rams at all times. In general, children become used to sheep very quickly, and when given their own lamb to care for, become responsible and very proud little shepherds. Small breeds It would seem then that small breeds such as the Shetland or Portland would be a good choice for an inexperienced sheep farmer, but it’s important to be aware that these breeds make up for their size by their speed and agility. They’re quick thinkers, and will make a dash between the shepherd’s legs when they see that the way past him has been blocked. The field in which they’re kept requires good quality fencing – small breeds are adventurous by nature, and adept at squeezing through small holes, or trying to push out under the bottom wire. Fleece

If you’re interested in spinning and weaving, some time must be given to studying the wide range of wools produced by the national flock. All British sheep, with two exceptions, carry fleeces of widely varying character and quality. The exceptions are the Wiltshire Horn and the “Easy Care” sheep, a polled (hornless) breed developed from a Wiltshire Horn, South Welsh Mountain cross. Both carry very short hairy coats, which moult and re-grow during the summer. Apart from these two breeds, the national flock is composed of sheep carrying fleeces of varying quality, largely determined by the varying proportion of wool to hair fibres. Wool fibres are shorter and finer than hair fibres, and covered with scales, which cause them to hold together when spun. Hair fibres are coarser and have more spring than wool fibres. They’re longer, and the scales lie smoothly along the surface. Sheep from the mountains and uplands are protected from the inclement weather of their habitat by an undercoat of wool fibres, which keeps the animal warm, and an outer coat of hairs. These hang out through the wool to protect the sheep from the rain and the soaking mists of the hills. The sheep keeps itself dry by shaking off the drops of moisture which collect on the hairy outer coat. The coarsest of these fleeces are used for the production of mattresses, and the somewhat finer fleeces used for weaving carpets and for tweed production. The springy, smooth nature of the hairs makes these products exceptionally hard-wearing, and reasonably easy to keep clean. John Peel’s “coat so grey”, was made from the grey and extremely hairy wool of the Herdwick sheep of the Lake District. A further quality of British wool is the high degree of crimp (curliness) that it possesses. This gives British woollen fabrics an extra springiness and elasticity, which enables them to regain their original shape after wearing. Some English sheep (Wensleydale, Leicester Longwool and Lincoln Longwool) carry extremely long, wavy, lustrous fleeces, which are used to produce quality clothing materials and furnishing textiles. These are extremely large animals and may be thought unsuitable for novice sheep breeders, but on the other hand, they can’t slip through your legs and disappear at top speed like the small primitive breeds. In addition, these large breeds aren’t homed and produce very heavy fleeces. The average fleece weight of a Lincoln ewe is 6-7kg, and the staple 15-35cm. Lincoln wool was exported in quantity during the Middle Ages, probably because of the length of the staple, which made it suitable for weaving worsted cloth. All three breeds are Rare Breeds. Black Wensleydales and Leicester Longwools are not uncommon, coloured Lincolns are rare. Information on the availability of coloured sheep from normally white breeds, and breeds that are always coloured, like the Hebridean and the Manx Loghtan, is provided by the British Coloured Sheep Breeders’ Association. Another Rare Breed, the Ryeland, a descendant of the Lemster, which produced the finest and most highly valued wool in the Middle Ages, is a tubby little breed, with ewes weighing 50-60kg and rams 75-80kg. The fleece weight is 2-3kg, the staple 8-10 cm, and the quality 2832 microns. Grey and black sheep are available, enabling patterns to be woven or knitted without changing to a different type of wool. Coloured, spotted or patchy breeds These breeds are suitable for a smallholding because their wool is in demand by handspinners, and individual sheep are easy to identify at a distance. Being able to identify individual sheep in the field avoids the need to bring the entire flock into a yard to separate out a lame sheep, only to find that they all stand stock still. Either you have to get them to trot around, which upsets them, or let them out one by one in the hope that the limper can be identified and taken away from her companions. Moreover, naturally coloured breeds with patchy or spotted coats make excellent sheepskin rugs, for which there is a considerable demand. Medium sized sheep in this category are the spotted Jacob and the patchy Icelandic. The small Shetland sheep carry a fleece of exceptionally fine wool, with the same colour range as the Icelandic, namely white, brown, grey, fawn, and black. There are also white sheep with a wide variety of markings in these colours. Sheep shows and organisations This is an ideal year in which to choose a sheep breed. The National Sheep Association, which, every second year, holds a major show of sheep breeds from the entire country, is holding this event, Sheep 2006, at the Three Counties Showground, Malvern, on Wednesday August 2. Not only are the sheep breeds of the whole country represented, but also an incredibly wide range of organisations  involved with sheep. These include the Wool Board, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, the Coloured Sheep Breeders’ Association, and also the makers of sheep ice cream, sheep handling systems, sheep shears, medication for sheep, etc, etc. This is definitely an occasion not to be missed.

For information on all British sheep breeds, contact the appropriate breed society secretary. Their names and addresses are available from the secretary of the National Sheep Association, The Sheep Centre, Malvern, Worcs WR13 6PH tel: 01684 892661  For information on Coloured Sheep contact Pat Regardsoe, Chairman, British Coloured Sheep Breeders’ Association, 1 Leatway Gardens, Cullompton, Devon EX15 1AP Tel. 01884 32602 email:  This article is from the July 2006 issue of Country Smallholding magazine.  

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