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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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Let’s talk about Silk

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while, but not really daring too. It flies in the face of so much of what I see on social media. Silk is almost universally adored for its lustre and softness. It takes a dye beautifully and for that reason is much beloved of hand dyers. And was much beloved of me too for a long time. But then I learned how silk was produced and I no longer see it as desirable.

So, a quick history lesson:

According to Chinese legend, Empress Hsi Ling Shi (there are multiple spellings of her name), was the first person to discover silk as wearable fibre. There are several variations of this legend, all on a theme. But they generally go like this; the Empress was drinking tea under a mulberry tree, and a cocoon fell into her cup and began to unravel. Or she saw a silk worm spinning it’s cocoon whilst out walking in the palace gardens and thought it would be wonderful to be attired in such a fibre. You get the idea.

©wikipedea.com

What is certain is that someone or a group of someones, three thousand ish years ago, discovered the fibre produced by the Bombyx mori silkworm found living on the white mulberry, and developed what is known as Sericulture, the cultivation of silkworms, and invented the reel and loom.

Initially, silk was worn exclusively by Chinese royalty, but silk cloth spread gradually throughout the China and then into Asia and Europe. Demand for silk in Europe eventually created the trade route now known as the Silk Road, taking silk westward and bringing gold, silver and wool to the East.

The Chinese wished to maintain their monopoly on this lucrative industry and travellers were searched thoroughly at border crossings with anyone caught trying to smuggle eggs, cocoons, silkworms or even mulberry seeds out of the country were summarily executed. However, eventually silk production did spread, first to Korea, then to India, Japan and Persia. And silk spinning and weaving became widespread throughout Europe. There is an old silk mill quite near to my home although it is currently closed (reopening August 2018).

© Hampshireattractions.co.uk

Why all the fuss?

Silk is a remarkable fibre. In spite of its delicate appearance, silk is relatively hard wearing. Its smooth surface resists dirt and odours. It is wrinkle and tear resistant, and it dries quickly. It is also a surprisingly good insulator so is great added to wool for winter garments and it can be worn as a second layer underneath to warm without being bulky. It can absorb up to 30% of its weight in moisture without feeling damp so will absorb perspiration while letting your skin breathe, which makes it great for summer garments too. It’s also the most hypoallergenic of all the natural fabrics thanks to its unique structure.

But the real oooh factor for silk is its unique sheen, which means colours radiate and assume a luminescence.

So what is my issue?

I’ll admit it. So far, this post has sounded like an advert for the silk industry. And this is as far as most people want to go when thinking about silk. But my discomfort comes from the way the silk is made. It’s time for a bit of biology. If you can remember back to your school days, and your lessons on the life cycle of the butterfly, the silk worm is very similar, in that, left to its own devices, the silkworm goes through 4 stages.

© kullabs.com

The first stage is the egg. The female silkworm will lay up to 400 eggs in clusters on mulberry leaves. The female dies after egg laying. The eggs hatch into larvae in around 11 days. This larval stage is the second stage. The larvae eat the mulberry leaves and moult 4 times, growing bigger each time they moult. After the final moult, the larva spins a protective cocoon of silk around itself and turns into a pupa. This is the third stage. Nothing appears to happen at this stage but inside the pupa, the worm is undergoing massive changes called metamorphosis, which change the silkworm larvae into the moth. The moth breaks out of the cocoon and flies off to mate and, in the females’ case, lay more eggs and so repeat the cycle.

However, silk production rudely interrupts the cycle at the third stage, when the silkworm is a pupa. If the silkworm is allowed to hatch out of the cocoon, the silk on the cocoon will be broken into short lengths rather than unwinding in a long single strand. This is not helpful when spinning silk. So, the silkworm farmers, kill the silkworm at this stage by placing the cocoons in boiling water. The heat kills the pupae and, happily for the silk spinners, makes the silk fibre easier to unravel. It is said that the silkworms can then be eaten but I have been unable to find much evidence that they actually are eaten other than out of desperation or as a ‘delicacy’ sold to tourists (although if you are a regular consumer of silkworms, I would LOVE to hear from you.)

© squishfibrearts

So, silk production is terminal to silkworms. And this does not sit well with me. I’m not a vegan, or even vegetarian. But, I don’t eat meat everyday and when I do eat meat it is always high welfare and organic, if I can get it. I also use as much of the meat as I can, making stock for soup and risotto from bones and using up all leftovers. I acknowledge that animals have to die so I can eat meat. This does not make me feel warm and fuzzy inside (how could it?) but it’s something I think about, talk to my children about, and keep under constant review. But, I just cannot get comfortable with the idea that an animal had to die in order to give me a lovely lustrous garment, so I can look good. I just can’t look at silk garments and think they are gorgeous. I look at silk garments and see dead silkworms.

Ah, but what about peace silk? Peace silk (sometimes called Ahimsa silk) is produced from cocoons that are collected after the moths have emerged naturally. This all sound soothingly natural and happily non fatal to the silkworm. However, there are no certification authorities for peace silk and it’s entirely possible for conventional silk producers to label their products as peace silk. Additionally there are no welfare standards for peace silk so the silkworms are still potentially subject to mistreatment, by, for example, being forced from their cocoons too early, or forcing the female moths to lay their eggs on trays rather than on mulberry leaves, and putting males into a refrigerator, bringing them out occasionally to mate and then throwing them away when they were no longer able to mate. In my experience, where there is money to be made and no authorities to check, abuses inevitably follow.

My feelings also apply to recycled silk. This is basically the remnants of conventional silk left over from sari manufacture. It’s a nice way to make sure all the silk is used and not wasted but silkworms still died in order to produce it.

So where does this leave me? Well, here is the thing, in relation to woollen garments, I don’t even need silk. In the last few years, silk has been increasingly blended with that most common of breed wools, Merino, because, despite its supreme softness, Merino doesn’t bear much lustre or strength, and silk gives it both of these. This is how I purchased most of my silk (before I felt out of love with Merino – but that’s a post for another day) and I do own a couple of hand knit sweaters in this blend. But, lately, I found myself wondering why I even need my hand knits to be shiny? What’s that all about? In any event, you only need to look to a breed like Wensleydale for softness and lustre.

So, given I don’t need to wear silk, I’m happy to state that I’m not going to stock it in my shop. You will never see me dye pure silk or a silk blend. No more silkworms will die on my account!

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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.

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Shop Opening

Squeeeee!

I’m so excited. I think I might burst.

I have news.

I’ve opened an etsy shop selling my hand dyed wool, and as you can probably tell, I’m a little bit thrilled about it.

It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time but it’s a big leap from wanting to do something to summoning the courage and actually taking the plunge.

But I’ve done it.

I’ve been a big supporter of British food for a very long time, shopping small and local, at farmers’ markets, and at the farm gate, as much as I can. And I made a decision at the end of last year, to further support British farmers, by only buying British wool in 2018. I had a passing thought that this might have the added benefit of curbing the growth of my stash. I assumed there would be limited choice. I now realise just how naive I was. Buying British has opened my eyes to the enormous choice and variety in British wool. And its all just so wonderful, and I’ve been having so much fun dyeing all the different breed yarns, seeing how it responds to the dye, trying out different techniques, that I wanted to share.

I’ve started with two bases, Brazen DK which is 100% Jacob, and Audacious DK which is 100% Wensleydale. Both grown and spun in the UK and all hand dyed in my kitchen in rural West Berkshire. In addition to the 100g skeins, I’ve also dyed some 20g mini skeins in these two bases. These are just about the cutest thing ever. I adore them.

I’ll be introducing new bases and weights over the next few weeks; the ever popular Blue Faced Leicester, and after that, I have plans for Dorset Horn, British Falkland Island’s Merino, then Cheviot, Corriedale and ….. the list goes on and on. I think we are going to have a lot of fun exploring all the different breeds.

So pop over to the shop and have a browse, and let me know what you think. Are there any colours you’d especially like to see? Or any breeds you like me to stock? Please do let me know.