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.

Natural plant dyeing

So, if you follow me on Instagram or Facebook (and if not, why not?) you’ll have seen that I’ve been trying out natural plant dyes. And it’s been really good fun. There is something amazing about watching the dye seep out of plant matter and then see it transfer onto your wool.

I’ve tried to do this before – without much success but following a chat with Rita from Hedgeknits at Flockfest, I decided to give it another go. Rita recommended I buy some litmus papers so I could test the pH of my tap water. We live in a hardish water area and have a water softener and it hadn’t occurred to me this would have an impact on my dyeing result, but, low and behold, it did.

What’s your pH?

So, for most plant based dyes, a gentle alkaline medium is best. If I’ve totally thrown you by that statement, panic not! Your water can be made acidic, neutral or alkaline, depending on what is added to it. So first up, fill a pan with water and test it with litmus paper. Litmus paper comes in little strips and you simply dip a strip in your water and it changes colour to tell you the pH. You compare the colour to the chart that comes with the papers. My litmus paper was yellow (it comes in other colours) and so, yellow is neutral, orange through to red is acidic, and green through to blue is alkaline. You are aiming for mid green.

Now it’s time to raid the larder. If your water is acidic or neutral, you’ll need to add bicarbonate of soda to make it more alkaline. If its much too alkaline, then you need to add white vinegar or citric acid, to bring it back more towards neutral. My water is only very slightly alkaline and this probably accounted for my previous natural dyeing failures, so I added some bicarbonate of soda, a spoonful at a time, testing after each spoonful, until I got a good green on the litmus paper.

Making the dye solution

Once you have a gentle alkaline ph, pop in your plant material. In my case, I used avocado pits and skins. I’d been saving these up for a while – each time we ate an avocado, I’d wash the stone and skins in cold water to get any remaining flesh off , leave them to dry, split the stone with a heavy sharp knife (keeping fingers and thumbs well out of way) and then pop it all in the freezer. Once I had the stones and skins of 6 or 7 avocados, and was ready to dye, I took the box out of the freezer to defrost. Once defrosted, I added the stones and skins to my water and gently heated it on the hob. Pretty quickly the stones began to exude the most gorgeous pink colouring. I simmered the mixture for about 20 minutes, then left it for a couple of hours to cool. Then I strained the dye solution, discarded the stone and pits and put the dye solution back in the pan.

Soaking the wool

Meanwhile I soaked my wool in some more water until it was thoroughly saturated. I also soaked some wool in some water with added bicarbonate of soda (remember my tap water isn’t very alkaline) and this did result in a slightly stronger uptake of colour.

The very great advantage with dyeing with avocados is that you don’t need to mordant your fibre before you dye. This is because are high in tannin. A mordant is just a chemical agent that helps the dye stick to the fibre.

Dyeing!

To dye, I simply placed the wool into the pan containing the dye solution (making sure there was enough liquid to cover the wool), gently heated again to simmering point, turn off the heat and leave to cool (leave over night for a deeper colour, if you have the patience), rinse the wool and Voilà!

More experimentation

After my avocado success, I repeated the process with dock leaves. These produce the most wonderful bright yellows through to golden browns depending on heat, pH and whether or not I’d mordanted the wool with alum or just soaked it in water.

I’d say a willingness to experiment and allowing in some serendipity – not having a shade or tone fixed in your mind – are key to successful natural dyeing. It’s better to love what you produce rather than feel dissatisfied when your results don’t match your expectations.

There is also a beautiful subtle quality to the colour of naturally dyed yarn. Because the tone is generally more muted than those produced from acid dyeing with synthetic dye (see my blog post here about starting to acid dye) they seem to naturally co-ordinate with each other. I can see that there will be lots more natural dyeing in my future.

I think I’ll try nettles next (but I need rubber gloves and some copper sulphate first), then coffee, rose, and onion skins, and lots, lots more!

Flockfest, here I come!

So, it’s Yarn Shop Day tomorrow (Saturday 12th May) and I’m exhibiting, along with lots of other dyers and purveyors of buttons etc, at Flockfest at Flock on the Plain in Woodbury in Wiltshire. To say I’m excited, is to significantly understate how I’m feeling.

I thought I’d give you all a preview of some of the hand dye British wool I’m taking with me.

I have totally fallen I love with these Blue Faced Leicester sock weight mini skeins. They are such a lovely pop of colour. They are 80 meters/20g each and are sold in sets of five. They are spun with a high twist so are perfect for socks.

I’m also taking a Blue Faced Leicester/Nylon Sock weight mix with me. Basically this is for the Nervous Nellies who don’t believe a yarn is strong enough for socks without nylon (although I do love it too and am making socks from it at the moment). This is also spun with a high twist and is sold in 100g hanks.

I’m also taking my Audacious base in DK and 4ply weights. This Wensleydale yarn has such a lovely lustre and I particularly love the ply on the 4ply weight. It will be lovely made into shawls. Both the DK and the 4ply are sold in 100g hanks.

Lastly, this is my Saucy DK base. This yarn come from Dorset Horn sheep, a breed listed as threatened on the Livestock Conservancy watchlist, so I’m particularly excited to be showing this. I just can’t describe how well this yarn takes a dye. Look at the pics to see what I mean. I’ve just dyed up a few skeins of this yarn currently but I plan to dye up a some sweater quantities as I think it will make lovely garments.

So, if you are local to Woodborough in Wiltshire do come and squish the yarn. It will be lovely to see you.