Posted on Leave a comment

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.

Posted on Leave a comment

My Unravel 2018

Unravel is my local yarn festival as it’s only about 40 minutes from my house and I go almost every year, but I missed last year due to my husband’s big birthday celebrations occurring on the same weekend. So I was super excited to go this year, especially as I was going with my lovely friends, the Possiwools.


This was the first yarn festival I’d attended since I resolved to only buy yarn grown, spun and dyed in the UK, and I think, when I made this resolution, I was expecting this would be a big limiting factor on my purchasing and that I might actually reduce my stash over the course of 2018. How wrong I was.

We all met up over coffee and by 10.30am had hit the Great Hall, and the first vendor I saw was The Little Grey Sheep who are based about 20 minutes from my home, so are very local to me and consequently hit all my buying local buttons. I didn’t have a clear idea of what I would want to make in their yarn until I saw their samples of the Raven sweater by Marie Wallin and was smitten. Emma really knows her colours so I was happy to let her guide me and very quickly came away with a sweater quantity of yarn in my bag. And it felt really good knowing I was supporting a small local business. 


Then a good squish of yarns at John Arbon and New Forest Mohair, and a lot of admiration of Jon’s fabulous Dashounds Through The Snow Christmas Jumper at Easy Knits, and I purchased Alison Ellen’s great book, Knitting Colour, Structure and Design (expect to see entrelac in my future) and Rachel Coopey’s Socks Yeah! book because her gussets are just so gorgeous (not a sentiment you can generally express publicly without attracting strange looks, unless it’s within a group of knitters).

My next yarn purchase was from Daughter of a Shepherd. I just love her story and it was reading her blog, after listening to a Knit British podcast, about how little farmers are paid for their fleece and that it’s often not worth the transportation cost to market, so they bury it, use it as compost or burn it, that made up my mind to buy British. I’m so pleased she and her father took the decision to have their yarn spun because it is a beautiful product. I bought 400g of Brune,  a double knit weight yarn with the idea of making a Bavaria shawl by Isabell Kraemer.


Next up was a squeeze of the yarn at Baa Ram Ewe in the Cellar Bar before we left the festival and took a short walk to a cafe in the town for lunch. Returning to the festival, we proceeded upstairs. In the Barley Room I discovered the Cambrian Mountain  Wool CIC, who are a community interest company developing fine yarns from Welsh wool, and I was so impressed with their shearling yarn I bought a sweater quality with the idea I would dye it and make something gorgeous. Also in the Barley Room was Whistlebare whose mohair goats are just the cutest thing ever. They have a new no nylon sock yarn called Cuthbert’s Sock which I was keen to try and I managed to grab a skein in their Monk’s Journey colourway with a contrasting mini skein for toes and heels. A couple more skeins of 4ply may have also “fallen” into my bag, just because…


Into the Tindle Studio and I couldn’t miss the Garthenor stand. Even if you ignore the yarn, it’s a lovely display and it makes buying their yarn very easy. Each row corresponds to a yarn weigh from lace weight at the top through to chunky at the bottom. I bought 3 50g skeins of their 4ply yarn (although at 135 metres per 50g, it’s almost a sport weight), without a project in mind. Pattern suggestions gratefully received.

Just off the Tindle Studio is the Courtyard Kiln where I had a lovely chat with the ladies from the Wensleydale Longwool Sheep Shop and saw the difference in loftiness between the ecru and darker natural Wensleydale yarn. I purchased a couple of balls of the dark undyed double knit, again, without a project in mind but I do have some cream undyed Wensleydale DK in my stash so this might become a monochrome fairisle project in the fullness of time.


Next up was Bigwigs Angora (oh those bunnies are soooo soft) and Hill View Farm who are on my list to buy from just as soon as some equilibrium has been restored to my bank balance (they have a peach colourway that I MUST have). Then a quick scoot through the Tannery to say hi to the guys at A Yarn Story and admire the incredible needle felt sculptures of Jenny Barnett (maybe next year I will try my hand at needle felting) before it was time to say goodbye to my wool buddies and head back to the car, bags bulging, slightly foot sore but very, very happy.

Links to the exhibitors are below:

The Little Grey Sheep

Raven sweater by Marie Wallin

Daughter of a Shepherd

Bavaria shawl by Isabell Kraemer

Cambrian Moutain Wool CIC

Whistlebare

Garthenor

Wensleydale Longwool Sheep Shop

Bigwigs Angora

Hill View Farm