I just love sheep I think they are amazing animals with amazing personalities & character. I love watching them as mothers with their lambs in the spring bouncing happily around the fields. It’s a wonderful time of year when the fields & hills are again alive with the sounds of the cry of the lambs after a long winter. It heralds the return of the Cookoo & the Swallow marking the beginning of the warm sunny days of Summer.
Here in the Dyfi Valley, we have many different breeds of sheep & their fleece is useful for so many different things not just the typical view of rugs. Wales used to be quite a big producer of blankets & tweed but sadly a lot of the mills have now fallen silent with the progress of Chinese imports. In the last sheep census carried out in Wales, there were some 9.81 million sheep & only just over 3 million people.
The main breed here around my home is the black fleeced & white fleeced Welsh mountain which is a hardy sturdy breed & has been bred to be able to handle the harsh extremes of weather & altitudes which we do get in our countryside. They are reliable lambing sheep which often produce twins & on the odd occasion triplets too. We also have Speckled face, Kerry Hill, Lleyn, Badge-faced, black Balwin too. We also have some non-native breeds such as Jacob, Shetland, Blue-faced Leicester, Soay, Sadly one of the Welsh breeds on the endangered list of breeds is the Llanwenog which is a lovely sheep with an amazingly soft white fleece which is great for dyeing, spinning by hand & felting. Thankfully with more people wanting to save endangered breeds, the numbers are now on the up.
I love the variety of breeds that are available each with its own quality & uniqueness, all unique in their own right for use & character. To me, each fleece is like a human fingerprint no 2 fleeces are the same each has its own markings, softness & quality unique to that particular sheep. Just like each human being has its own unique fingerprint. Which, until I started spinning I didn’t realize that there were so many breeds & so much variety in wool.
There are so many factors that go into producing the wool & quality on a sheep’s back. The water plays an important role in the quality if we have a lot of rain I find it goes ropey & coarse making it hard to wash & it will often be quite matted or felted making it more difficult to sheer sheep. Where they graze & on what vegetation is also a factor as hill sheep often have a coarse fleece which is why it was more useful in days gone by as an outer garment, rug or blanket as you wouldn’t want it near your skin. Sheep wool naturally contains oils called lanolin which is added to skin care products as it makes your skin soft. I find after an hour or so spinning that may hands become lovely & soft.
There is also the sex of the sheep male or female produce different quality & smelling fleece. A male sheep (Tup, Ram) is known to have a particularly smelly fleece but can often have a better quality of curl as they are more likely to be a pure breed rather than a crossbreed. Females have a much nicer fleece which I find easier to wash & easier to spin. I find the quality of a female fleece better than off the male but I may be just being too picky, but then I do have a lot of sheep available here to afford to be picky.
Despite popular belief sheep do actually need to be shorn for their own well being as the summer sun can make them overheat, the fleece can felt if left too long making it difficult & painful for the sheep to have the fleece removed. Also if the fleece is left on in the summer during blue bottle season the flies lay eggs in the fleece producing maggots that eat into the sheep.
Animal welfare is very important to our local farmers & I wouldn’t choose to use fleece from a sheep that has been ill-treated by a farmer. You can be sure that any fleece I use in my products has come from well cared for sheep.
As you can see there is more to sheep than meets the eye. They have secret superpowers that eat grass & turn it into wool that in turn turns it into lots of lovely warm amazing things to adore wearing & enjoy in your home. There are many people like myself just see sheep & don’t realize that there are so many different breeds out there. Next time you visit Wales be sure to take a look at sheep differently..xx