Time to shear the sheep, mid June and warming up. My friend and fellow Portland sheep breeder, Darren, was able to come help. Shearing is a skill to be respected, I am truly in awe, watching as these sheep are flipped and turned, the electric clipper never stopping as the fleece finally comes off in one big piece.
The sheep must be dry in order to shear. We had a good spell of dry warm weather. The evening before we moved all the sheep down to the open shed and penned them up by group, no rams near the ewes, of course. Darren arrived early, set up, and he was off. As each sheep was done, Darren’s daughter, Annabelle, and I tossed the fleece out on a clean board, picked off all the yucky bits, then rolled them up. Thirty eight sheep later we were finished, hot, sweaty and pooped. But the sheep looked happy with their warm woolly coats removed.
Then for a bit of chaos - the lambs don’t recognise their lovely smelly mums anymore! There is plenty of bleating and crying and ewes shoving away mixed-up lambs trying to get a drink. Sheep were returned via the trailer back to their fields and peace and quiet soon returned.
Farmers send their fleeces to the British Wool Board where is is graded, clean and sold to buyers from all over the world. The fleeces are not very valuable. Wool help build the British Empire and sheep were once raised for their wool, the meat was a by-product. How times have changed.
But there is movement in the UK promoting wool, and entrepreneurs are finding new ways to use this most amazing and unique fibre. Scientists cannot replicate wool in the lab, it is a living fibre that adjusts to weather and humidity, helping regulate the sheep’s temperature.
I bought a little second hand spinning wheel last summer and have been trying to give it a go. I carded the wool to straighten the fibres, and have had a few attempts at spinning. I used an unwashed fleece, and the lanolin softens your hands, really lovely. I don’t knit, though, so find myself a bit unmotivated by the whole process.
I attended a needle felting workshop recenty, and having no idea what to expect, was pleasantly surprised to create small hare ‘sculpture’ using some grey Shetland wool. Next day I got busy washing a fleece. After consulting a few friends and discovering various techniques, I took the plunge. With the dirty fleece placed in the biggest net wash bag I could find, I then filled the bathtub with warm water and some eco soap. Gently, gently, as agitating the fleece will make the fibres cling together tighter and tighter. Filthy water! After rinsing the water was gently pressed out and then I transferred the fleece to a drying rack and let it dry slowly.
My not-so-creative juices began to flow. First projects are a Portland ewe and lamb, and a sheep brooch for my hat...
Back to reality after the Show…Moving highland cattle up to Crabbe Hill is always a bit fretful, but it never went so badly as it did this weekend. (Am I tempting fate by writing that)? We needed to move the six cows with their calves, plus several heifers, etc., out onto the bridleway, and walk them about a quarter mile up Lewesdon Hill for summer grazing.
I called them out of their field with a shake of the bucket and they came charging out…all except one little calf who got left behind. They followed me, bumping and banging into each other as usual, with Dan and Richard walking behind. All fine and excited to be in their new home.
Now it was time for us to catch the lonely calf and reunite him with his mother, who luckily was not bothered in the least about her missing boy. The three us us then spent almost two hours chasing the little bastard until he finally ran into the holding area. We then loaded him into the sheep trailer and took him up with the rest.
But not finished yet. Four more beasts at the far end of the farm also needed to be move up. This would involve a good half mile walk. But the cattle are used to moving up and down the bridleway and usually walk on without a problem once we get them out onto the track.
These four appeared to have no leader. So getting them out of the field was a nightmare. Then they decided to charge off in the wrong direction. It was hot, they were getting stressed, so we let them settle in a cool shady area on the bridleway. I stood guard in case any walkers appeared (luckily none did as I would have told them to turn around)! while Dan went to get the tractor and cattle box. It then took us over an hour to get them loaded. They were absolutely stubborn and all of Dan and Richard’s efforts to force them on went nowhere. It was only when we sat down for a break that they walked onto the trailer, mocking us all the way.
The last part of track up to the hill is very sleep, winding and bumpy but Richard drove the tractor with his usual cocky confidence, they arrived safely and sauntered out of the cattle box without looking back. Day done, a two hour job took us eight!
And last but not least, it makes good sense to check your livestock every day...silly little lamb was just fine, thank goodness, and this is the second time he has done this.
By 7.15 on Bank Holiday Monday morning we had already loaded the sheep in the trailer and were on our way to Sherborne Castle grounds for the Sherborne Country Show. It was very overcast and drizzly but the forecast looked good for a day outside at the show.
Arriving and unloading is always a bit stressful. But the Portland people are helpful and the sheep were soon in their pens. Rams in one pen, the three shearling ewes together, then the two ewes and their lambs. We had a fourth pen where we set up folding chairs, a box with our white show coats, halters, feed, etc. Some shows are undercover, others line up pens in the open. We have a pop-up gazebo in case of rain but not needed today.
It takes a while to get settled. There is paperwork and registration and of course you must make sure the sheep are watered with hay bags.
Minty was first up at 9.30 with the Young Handlers class. By now the crowds were arriving and her dad and brother were there to see her get a Third. It was tough competition as she was the youngest and two young men with much more experience took first and second. So we were all thrilled when she got the yellow rosette!
The Portland classes soon started, with Older Rams first, then Shearling Rams. We placed second with Cardamon, very happy about that. We had three Shearling ewes in the next class and the judge awarded a First for our sweet and feisty little girl I have nicknamed ‘Princess!' I started working with her only a month ago, the other two had been haltered as lambs.
The judging continued until all those Portlands with a First in their class came together to find the champion Portland. And my little Princess won!
So the day flew by, sunshine and cloud, all very pleasant. Friends and neighbours stopped by to see our rosettes. We even received a Second Place ‘Wool on the Hoof’ with another Shearling. And we got another First for Family Group of Three.
Finally the Interbreed Champion judging took place, where the winner from all the different breeds compete. Princess and I lined up with some very smart looking and well turned out sheep, all standing beautifully. All the judges had a look, checked their teeth, grabbed and poked. My little girl was very impatient and naughty, never standing still. So I was completely taken by surprise when she was awarded Supreme Champion. The top prize!
This was so amazing and wonderful for the Portland breed. And the icing on the cake was the final judging for best Interbreed Family Group. We were awarded another Supreme Champion rosette!
Leading the Grand parade around the show ground was NOT the highlight of the day as Princess was fed up and had to be pushed along as we collected our trophies! But a most amazing day never to be repeated and never to be forgotten. All the Portland breeders shared the limelight as our sheep were recognised for all their loveliness.
Jo Stover has daily adventures on her small farm, together with her Highland cattle and Portland sheep, bees, a few hens, dogs, and some two-legged family and friends.