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Sheep Farming: the Stratified system

In my last blog post, I promised you some detail on the stratified (layered) system employed by sheep farmers in Britain. The vast majority of wool grown in Britain grows as a by-product (or, too often, sadly, as a waste product) of the meat industry. So this post is less about wool production and more about meat production, but it’s useful as a basis for understanding why we have so many different sheep breeds in Britain. The stratified system is vital for keeping British farming productive and efficient, as it enables all the nation’s land to be used in meat (and consequently, wool) production.

It is a system more or less unique to Britain and derives from our small geographic size, varied climate and the terrain, broadly broken down into three levels; hill, uplands and lowlands.

Hill

Hill areas have harsh climates, short growing seasons, relatively poor quality of soil and long winters. Think of areas such as the highlands and islands of Scotland, and the mountain areas of Wales.

The sheep who live on the hills are incredibly hardy and thick-coated. They are excellent mothers (often lambing outside without assistance, attentive and devoted to their lambs, rich in milk etc), and are generally well adapted to living in the harsh hill conditions.

Examples of these breeds include Swaledale, Scottish Blackface, Cheviots, Rough Fell, Dalesbred, Derbyshire Gritstone, and Herdwick.

On the hills, these sheep are pure breeding stock. That is to say, Swaledale ewes are only bred with Swaledale tups, producing 100% Swaledale lambs. Female lambs who are not being kept for breeding and wether (castrated male) lambs live on the hills until the grass stops growing in autumn and are then sold on to upland and lowland farms to be fattened up for meat.

The ewes kept on the hills for breeding usually lamb for the first time when they are 2 years old. They will usually have a single lamb each year for the next 3 to 4 years. At this point, if they are kept on the hills, their reproductive ability generally declines. However, if they are moved to better land, off the hills, where the climate is less harsh and the grazing is a bit more nutritious, such as the upland areas, they will often grow bigger and have plenty of breeding life left. The improved nutrition enables them to produce twins and sometimes triplets, rather than the singleton lambs they produced on the hills.

Uplands

So, as I said, conditions on the uplands are less harsh than on the hills. However, while the land and soil do produce more nutritious grass than on the hills, it is still not hugely productive. The uplands include areas of Northern England, such as The Pennines and Lake District, and also in the South West, on Dartmoor and Exmoor.

Our pure bred hill ewes will be bred with a Longwool tup, such as Bluefaced Leicester, Border Leicester, Teeswater, Wensleydale, and Devon & Cornwall Longwool. For each breed of Hill sheep there is a preferred Longwool crossing tup. For example, Swaledale ewes are generally crossed with a Bluefaced Leicester tup. Their resultant off spring are known as Mules or half breeds.

These Mules inherit hardiness, milking and mothering abilities from their mothers and fecundity (the ability to produce an abundance of lambs), larger size and conformity (shape of the carcass), and lustrous wool from their fathers.

It is interesting to note that lambs with Longwool mothers and Hill sires do not make good Mules, often possessing neither good maternal attributes nor good size or conformity.

Once they are weaned, ewe Mule lambs are transferred to lowland farms for breeding and male Mule lambs are reared for meat production, either in the uplands or on a lowland farm.

Lowlands

The lowlands are, not surprisingly, the low lying areas of Wales and England, mostly in central and eastern England where soil is far more productive than on the hills of the uplands, and therefore mostly turned over to arable (crop) farming. Sheep are part of arable field rotations, where fields that have grown crops for a number of years are sown with grass to help improve the soil, aided by sheep poop. This is the landscape I live in.

Our Mule ewes will be bred with what is known as a lowland terminal sire breed. Terminal because this is the last breeding in the stratified system. Lowland terminal sire breeds include Texel, Suffolk. Charollais, Clun Forest, Romney, and Oxford, Hampshire and Dorset Down.

Mule ewes generally reliably produce two lambs each year, but triplets are common and quads are not unusual. These lambs grow fast on their mother’s rich milk and, once they are weaned, the easier terrain and conditions, better grass growth and their larger frame inherited from the terminal sire, mean that these lambs grow faster and produce more meat in less time.

Fattened up

I’ve mentioned the fattening up of the lambs a few times in this post so I thought it was worth quickly explaining what this term means. The word fat here doesn’t refer to fat but actually means the point at which the muscle on the animal is fully formed. It is the muscle which is valuable in the meat industry.

A sheep carrying fat in addition to its muscle isn’t a good thing for a farmer because, generally, they’ll be less successful in breeding.

I hope this has provided an insight into why we have such a large number of sheep breeds in Britain. In writing this blog post I’ve relied on information from the National Sheep Association and from the excellent book Counting SheepA Celebration of the Pastoral Heritage of Britain by Philip Walling. I will be taking a more detailed look at some of the breeds mentioned in this post in future blog posts so, do follow the blog so you don’t miss them.

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Unravel 2019

A week from today, I will be showing my yarn, for the first time, at Unravel, at The Maltings in Farnham.

I can’t tell you how excited I am. For the last few months, I have been naturally dyeing up a storm in my cottage kitchen, trying new to me colours, new to me techniques, endlessly experimenting and learning. I have just one indigo vat to go and I’m ready.

I have also designed three hats to compliment the special qualities of my Saucy Dorset Horn DK yarn (300m/100g) and these patterns will be launched at the show. All three patterns are inspired by my west Cornish ancestry and our family visits to Sennen Cove, a small fishing village about a mile up the coast from Land’s End.

The first of the hats is Gommon, which takes name and its inspiration from the seaweed, thrown up onto the sandy beach, by the wild seas of winter. My children just love the curious, other worldly, shapes of the seaweed. The stitch used in the hat is a super stretchy mix of knit and purl, and an initially nerve wracking, but quickly satisfying, yarn over and drop stitch repeating pattern, ideally suited to the grippy quality of Dorset Horn wool.

The second of the hats is named Hasen (the Cornish word for seed) and is named for the myriad dried seed heads found, in late summer, in the sand dunes above the beach by the tiny hamlet of Vellandreath, about a mile along the sandy bay from Sennen Cove. My ancestors and wider family, lived in three of the seven small cottages at Vellandreath for generations. My mother, when she was alive, told me vivid stories of visiting her great grandparents there, so it’s a very special place for me. It’s wonderful to linger in the dunes, toes in the soft sand, looking for snail shells and listening to the sounds of busy insects and the gentle breeze rustling the dried seed heads. Hasen is a super stretchy rib hat, with an easily memorised twist, and a pretty bobble brim.

Finally, on the cliff path from Sennen Cove to Land’s End, where the land meets the sea, magnificent cliffs of granite endure against the wind and salt spray of the pounding Atlantic waves. These cliffs, and the submerged rocks nearby, have claimed many ships, and are the inspiration for Kleger, the last hat in this short series, which combines simple knit and purl stitches to create a super stretchy, cosy hug of a hat.

If you are visiting the show, I’d be thrilled if you came to say hello. I will be upstairs, in the Barley room. I look forward to meeting you.

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Drowning In Plastic

So I caught a TV program a couple of weeks ago, on BBC1 called Drowning In Plastic (see here). Everyone I know who has seen it has been shocked. I think what surprised me most is the potential for micro plastics to enter the human food chain; a report out this week shows this is already happening (see here). Government advice is currently that adults should eat at least two portions of fish each week. If that fish contains tiny particles of plastic, and plastic gives off some nasty chemicals, so that’s a problem (see here, for example, for the effect on sperm counts). As is the potential for micro plastics in our drinking water.

So I wanted to write about what I’ve been doing to minimise my own plastic consumption, and maybe inspire you to do a bit more. I’ve long been a supporter of buying my fruit, vegetables and meat from places other than supermarkets (our local butcher, farm shop and a veg box scheme do a great job here) and I have used reusable shopping bags for almost two decades, so I was almost entirely unaffected when the 5p charge was introduced in the UK, but I was glad of it, nonetheless.

What actually started me thinking about plastic again was our holiday in Sennen Cove, in Cornwall, this summer. There is a noticeboard near the beach explaining how plastic damages sea life and the children got into a conversation about it, the result of which was us doing a daily 2 minute beach clean (see here for this initiative). Sennen Cove is a beautiful beach, and, at first glance looks pristine. But our daily beach cleans showed it was full of hidden litter, most of which was plastic. This is a typical example of the litter we found on just one day. And everyday we found a similar quantity and mix.

So then I started looking around on the internet and I came across the Plastic Free July initiative. The aim of this was to look at giving up single-use plastic. The initiative suggests you start by saving all your plastic waste for a week and then look into ways to reduce that. So that’s what I did.

Milk and More

Now I thought I’d be pretty pleased with the small amounts we used but, no. By the end of the week, it was a veritable mountain of bottles and wrappers. Most of those bottles were milk bottles. I have small children and we are fond of rice pudding and custard so we get through a lot of milk in our house. And this is bourn out by the knowledge that I was seemingly continually just popping to the shops to drag home another plastic wrapped 4 pinter. I’m old enough to remember glass milk bottles delivered by a milkman – I’m guessing I was well into my teens when my mother switched to buying it in plastic bottles from the supermarket. And I was unconsciously aware that milkmen had mostly gone the way of greengrocers and butchers when supermarkets took over, i.e. out of business except in niche areas. But, given it is a 13 mile round trip to our nearest supermarket (that’s what you get from living in the sticks), whilst I was keen to give up the necessity of frequent trips, I really didn’t think I’d be able to get a delivery out here (pizza and Indian restaurant businesses, please also take note!). So I Googled “milkman near me” and to my surprise the company Milk and More delivered in my area. So now I have a milkman. His name is Ricky and he delivers, like a super stealthy ninja, early in the morning on Tuesdays, Thursday and Saturdays. I also get orange and apple juice in glass bottles from Ricky, and organic eggs, and dry goods like porridge, and also luxuries like scrummy artisan bakery meringues.

There is a cost to this. My milk definitely costs more than it does when I buy it in the supermarket. This is because milk is generally sold at a loss making price in the supermarkets because the stores recognise that the continual need for milk brings customers into the store (and have you ever noticed how far back into the store the refrigerators for milk are!?) and when they are in the store, customers pop lots of other things in their baskets and trolleys, on impulse, which is where the stores actually make all their money. And this is the thing. because I’m not constantly in the shops buying milk, I’m also not constantly in the shops buy lots of other snack foods and impulse buys. So I’m actually not spending as much money as I did and am doing a lot less driving about in the car.

There is also a much underrated feel good factor around having milk delivered by a milkman. I get a small glow of happiness when I put my empty milk bottles out on the step the night before a delivery and the children are delighted by getting the milk in from the doorstep in the morning. But its more than that. The fact is, milkmen provide a vital service to more elderly or infirm folk who can’t always get to the shops. And consequently a milkman could be the first person to spot that the previous day’s milk hasn’t be brought in and that the elderly or infirm person might be in need of help. By supporting my milkman, I’m also supporting this part of his service.

Keeping clean

So, with milk ticked off the list, the next generator of plastic in my house was kitchen cleanser, soaps and laundry liquid. As I’ve said, I have small children and the sticky fingerprints are legion. I’ve long used Ecover products, because of the worry around liberally spraying chemicals near my children, so my next move wasn’t as big a leap as it might be for some people. I have recently read the book No Is Not Enough by Naomi Klein. In that book, when talking about protesters joining indigenous peoples in an encampment near a proposed pipeline route, she mentions the use of sage as an antibacterial cleanser.

This got me thinking, and after some (more) google research I found this recipe for making your own kitchen spray. So I waited until I used up my current kitchen spray and instead of putting the spray bottle in the recycling I made my own cleaning fluid and reused the spray bottle. The cleaning fluid doesn’t have any particular odour so I fragranced it with a couple of drops of eucalyptus essential oil and it is as effective as other cleaners at cleaning my work surfaces. Just about the only thing to get over is the brown colour of the liquid. And as sage grows like a weed in my garden, at a much faster rate than I can make stuffing with, it’s totally free. And because I’m reusing the bottle, that one less piece of plastic in the system.

So I also mentioned soap above and I’d previously always bought liquid hand soap, more or less by default. Again, liquid hand soap wasn’t a thing when I was a child but my mum had switched to it when it started to become popular and I’d just followed what she did without giving it a thought. And liquid hand soap comes in plastic bottles. So after some (yet more) googling I ended up buy some books on soap making and had some fun making my own Lavender and Camomile soap. Although I was desperate to try it, it actually takes around 6 weeks to cure so I had to be patient. But I can now report, it is lovely. It’s novelty factor also means my children are suddenly keen to wash their hands, although I doubt the phenomenon will last. I will definitely be making some more for Christmas presents, maybe with some other fragrances too.

Lastly was laundry liquid. Again, I already use Ecover but the plastic bottles it comes in was an issue for me. I can get the bottle refilled at a hardware store a few miles away, but they don’t have the concentrated liquid so this would still mean lots of extra car journeys. However, the alternatives like soap nuts also came with ethical problems that I couldn’t quite square off. So I put it to the back of my mind.

But recently, I posted on my Instagram Stories about it being conker season (conker season is a BIG thing when you have 7 year olds) and one of my IG friends told me you can make your own laundry liquid from conkers. Yes, you heard me. Laundry liquid from conkers. There is a great how to in this article on Wasteland Rebel.

So in the interests of intrepid reporting (or as intrepid as its possible to be within the confines of your own kitchen), I whizzed up some conkers in my food processor (and my goodness they do make a racket!), added some water, and 24 hours later had a small supply of laundry liquid. And it works surprisingly well; at least as well as the Ecover I’d been using. I fragranced it with a few drops of lavender essential oil but it doesn’t really need it. It was particularly lovely in my woollen wash where it made everything super soft. If you also have small children and consequently, a supply of conkers in your house at the moment, I’d really recommend you try it.

Plastic free business

And lastly, I wanted to let you know what I’d been doing in my yarn dyeing business to reduce my use of plastics. I always take pride in the fact that my business is basically creating a valuable resource from something which is an undervalued by-product of the British meat industry. And now I’m dyeing it more and more with plant materials, and often waste plant materials like avocado pits and onion skins, it is pretty low on any planetary impact scale. But there is always room for improvement. So, I’ve taken the decision to stop stocking wool/nylon blends. I’d pretty much come to the conclusion that its not really necessary anyway – I only stocked it in yarn intended for socks and it’s much better to use a wool with natural properties appropriate for the job of socks than to try to make inappropriate wool fit for the task by adding nylon. There are a very few skeins left in the shop but, once they are used up, I won’t be restocking it.

I’ve also sourced paper postal bags and packaging. These took their own sweet time to arrive (maybe the manufacturer had been inundated with orders? I hope so!) and while I was waiting, I used brown paper to package up parcels. Now the paper postal bags have arrived, I’m thrilled with them. I’ve carried out some durability tests (including mailing yarn to myself and then leaving the parcel out on the doorstep in the rain) and am very pleased with how they perform.

All these things taken individually are tiny actions, but together they make a big difference to the amount of plastic our family produces. But, I’m sure there is more I can do, so, if you have any suggestions, please do share them by commenting below.