Wool and the Gang

Some people think I need to get out more; I know this because I hear it quite often (mostly in jest I hope!) and usually from friends and family who live in urban areas and can’t comprehend that in fact you can make more friends living in rural areas than you ever do in town.

But actually I quite like my own company, when you work on your own sometimes having your own space to think and see is vital to the creative process. Although creativity is born of collaboration with that which is outside of you and is sparked by many things, to develop it you do need time alone in your headspace as it were to make it real. Of course often people “retreat” when they need to create things or think things over, sometimes on organised courses and sometimes just to get away from the busyness of a normal week. So rural living is perfect for this kind of life.

You’re never really alone here though. My mum and I share the land we live on so we have each other’s company whenever we want as well as our own space. Living where we do we’re also surrounded by a close community of awesome people from a wide variety of backgrounds. We just don’t see each other that often because of the physical distance between our houses but that means when we do meet, either by accident or by design, we make an effort to stop and catch up, take time to share a cuppa and hear each other’s news. I think that means that you truly get to know each other and “community” becomes “family” in a wider sense.

And of course most of us have animals of one sort or another. How could you ever feel lonely when you have a dog that woos you with roses?

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(Well OK, it wasn’t quite like that; Marley was keen for his walk and found the dead flowers I’d put out to go on the compost to add weight to his request – and who can resist those pleading eyes?)

So earlier we set off out for a damp misty walk to take photos (me) and chase bunnies and sniff the hedges (Marley – just in case you were wondering). There is something gloriously satisfying about walking in the countryside on a murky day in scotch mist amid falling leaves… and then coming home to tea and toasted crumpets.

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But before I put the kettle on I headed down the field to check on some of my other “friends”. My sheep might not be the kind of animals you’d share your home with (although I’m sure they’d try given half the chance) but they are bursting with personality and loyalty just as much as a dog and as soon as they see me approaching they run over to get a fuss – they adore human company and I find this very endearing.

Mostly it’s because they are Gotlands or Gotland crosses – this Swedish breed have massive personalities anyway, are extremely docile and are used to close contact with humans. When you handle them a lot they become incredibly tame and bond well with their shepherd in a way some other sheep breeds do not. I don’t carry food on me; this is no cupboard love – they are genuinely curious about people and just like contact with them. So although if I take strangers to visit them they will hold back just like any other sheep, when I go down the field on my own, because I’m “mum” I get mobbed. I climbed up on the gate to show you. Like this…

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Sadly it doesn’t extend to when I need to do tasks like shearing, foot trimming and worming – then they are as wild and as dippy as any other sheep! But out in the field on equal terms it’s a good way to observe them as individuals and notice which ones need attention or if one of them is behaving out of character which might indicate they are ill.

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Some are much more friendly than others; below is Hetti my oldest and most favourite ewe. She will always be the first to come pegging over for attention – her position as matriarch is unrivalled and although she retired fairly early on because she was ill a couple of years after I got her and can no longer be bred from, I will never part with this darling cheeky sheep.

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My other foundation ewe Helen is also retired and although not quite as in-her-face as Hetti, is also usually at the front of whatever is going on. Both of them still produce beautiful quality fleece; not all sheep breeds produce poorer quality fleeces as they age and these fleeces are still lustrous, curly and strong especially as they no longer have to carry lambs which takes a lot out of them.

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I crossbred my sheep from fairly early on and it’s interesting each year seeing the fleece types as they change with age as well as their genetic make up. Sometimes I wish I had a massive farm with lots of help so I could keep experimenting with this because the possibilities are infinite. But as we have only a limited acreage and time and I can never ever get rid of any of my animals I’ve had to stop breeding them – you can’t keep everything!

Some of the different types and colours from the Gotland, Black Welsh Mountain, coloured Leicester Long wool and Black BlueFaced Leicester genes.

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This next photo demonstrates some of the variation in my sheep over the past few years. At the front is Jonathan, he is Charollais, BFl and Gotland. Behind him is Mutton Monster – the last of our Suffolk x Charollais meat sheep but will almost certainly never be eaten now he’s 8 years old!! Behind him is Rasta a pure BlueFaced Leicester (BFL) but of a black gene variant which meant she couldn’t be registered (but I love black biffles as I call them!). Behind her is her daughter Siwan who is also 50% Gotland and to the left of her also at the back is the large and woolly Elvis who combines Gotland, Black Welsh Mountain (BWM) genes with coloured Leicester Longwool. They all look vaguely cream-to-coffee coloured in the picture but underneath each fleece is a different shade of grey, brown or silver – only the meat sheep is creamy coloured. And each fleece has completely different characteristics in terms of length, fineness, lustre and crimp (the shape of the curl or wave in each fibre) and therefore the uses for each fibre and how you spin them. It gets rather addictive mixing up the different types…

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The different genes also affect their characters, the more Gotland they are the more likely they are to be friendly – but not always. These three – Edward, Alfie and Paris – are all rather shy and not very keen on being handled at all and they are all part or full Gotland. Same handling, same flock – different personalities. Anyone that thinks sheep are boring, dull or stupid hasn’t spent any time with them!

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These two are my unexpected lambs from last summer (2014) and because they lost their mum who died suddenly of a viral pneumonia when they were only 5 weeks old, they’ve remained quite small despite being over a year old now. Unfortunately they’re also quite wild although I put them with Hetti and Isabella for adoption in the hopes they would teach them to be friendly. The older ewes affability hasn’t rubbed off sadly. Although generally they stick fairly closely to Isabella still (who isn’t in this photo) and are 3/4 Gotland genetically, they don’t trust me like the others do. Perhaps in time they will. Again I find it interesting how different these twins are; one really favours the Gotland genes and the other more like her BWMx mum. I’m looking forward to shearing their adult fleeces next year.

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Of course, not all of our “gang” here are sheep – yesterday we had fun trying to scan Petunia the Large Black pig to see if she is in fact pregnant. I’ve never had to do this before – when I bred pigs regularly my sows and boar were very fertile and had piglets without any difficulty. Petunia hasn’t had babies for a few years and in pigs this means they can become infertile and it’s been a struggle to try and get her back “in pig”.

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Yesterday though I was able to borrow a scanner from the vets I work at and some farming/vet friends and I had a go at seeing if Petunia’s expanding girth line was due to the impending patter of tiny trotters or merely eating all the pies. I’d wanted to take some photos to show you but in the end we just had to concentrate on the job in hand. She didn’t want to stand still and took exception to the cold gel on her tummy so whilst my friend followed her around the loose box with the scanner probe, I trailed around after clutching tightly to the precious scanner unit itself and the extension cable. Despite the lack of cooperation we’re pretty certain we saw finally some foetal piglets bobbling around in her tummy as she grunted and scoffed pig nuts we’d put down to keep her still! Let’s hope so anyway!!

She could do with some piggy company again, mostly she keep escaping from her own field to join the ponies which doesn’t impress them very much. They tolerate her but aren’t entirely sure about her trough manners…

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And then I quickly looked in on our latest arrivals – these are quite literally the new kids on the block! Mum bought a couple of young female goats this week to keep BillyBoy company. His mother died early this year as she was very old and shortly after he went mysteriously lame and despite various treatments it’s as much a puzzle to my vet boss as it is to me. He manages quite well with his unusual walk and for most of the summer had Donald the outcast duck for company. It was really sweet to see them cuddled up together in the shed but Donald was taken by a fox a couple of weeks ago and Billy needed some new friends.

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Mum is still thinking up names for them – I quite like Baa Humbug and Kendal Mint-cake personally – so at the moment they are just “the kids”. They’re quite a bit smaller than Billy but they all get on well. Now, I wonder if they’ll grow much cashmere undercoat this winter…

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