In my post Sheepwrecked, Sheepracked or Sheepwrought? I suggested that to help justify the maintenance of sheep grazing in the British uplands we needed to develop new breeds of sheep that cost less to manage. Wool is worth very little these days, and one avenue that might be worth exploring, I suggested, was to cross the modern Easycare breed that does not need shearing (because it sheds its fleece by itself every year) with the Herdwick, the iconic Lake District sheep, and the Soay, probably the toughest sheep breeds we have in Britain.
The Herdwick is believed to be a descendant of sheep brought in by the Vikings from Scandinavia over a thousand years ago. It is a distinctive sheep of great charm with a friendly white sock-puppet face, dark button eyes, shrekkish ears sticking out sideways from its head, sturdy and very hairy ‘bellbottom’ legs, and a fleece that changes colour as the animal ages.
The lambs are black, often with a bit of silver (rather like miniature Hebridean sheep) and usually with a white spot on the back of each ear, and they keep this dark colour into their second year.
By this time their heads and legs have turned white and the contrast with the inky darkness of the fleece brings Uncle Fester from the Addams Family to mind. As they age their coats get greyer, then the grey gets more silvery until finally the oldest ones are pretty much white. Lovely in colour the fleece may be, but sadly coarse. Wool suitable for hard-wearing carpets but not really for clothes. Indeed I wonder if some of the frenzied aggression of the notorious Viking berserker warriors was due to wearing itchy Herdwick woollen clothing next to their skin as well as to the consumption of fly agaric toadstools.
The Soay, which I went to see this summer on its home turf of St Kilda, is a much older breed, tough but small, and probably pretty close in appearance and characteristics to the first sheep brought to Britain by Neolithic settlers six thousand years ago. I will write more about them in another post.
I ran the idea of an Easycare / Herdwick / Soay crossbreeding programme past John Vipond, a consultant (now retired) with the Scottish Agriculture College and widely respected as an authority on sheep farming. John, I knew, had been actively promoting ways of reducing sheep management costs. He was keen on the idea of crossing Herdwicks and Easycares, and had suggested it himself at various field meetings with graziers and farmers, but so far no-one had taken him up on it. He felt that adding Soay to the mix would simply complicate matters.
Fools, they say, rush in where angels fear to tread, and as is so often the way serendipity lends a hand – or even, as in this case, gives you a hearty shove. I have become a regular visitor to Ennerdale in the Lake District, scene of a very interesting rewilding project (about which I will post another day), and through this have made the acquaintance of Richard Maxwell, whose black Galloway cattle are being deployed to limit tree regeneration in parts of the plantation forestry that have been felled or thinned. Richard also happens to have a large flock of Herdwicks.
Back in Northumberland, my desire for a better understanding of the interplay between livestock grazing and vegetation has led me to become a volunteer with Flexigraze, a CIC (Community Interest Company) set up to provide conservation grazing services in North-East England (https://flexigraze.org.uk/). Flexigraze makes use of an eclectic mix of sheep breeds that can thrive on the roughest of grazings including Manx Loaghtans, Hebrideans, Shetlands, Soays and Swaledales, plus ponies and Highland cattle for the really thick stuff. Flexigraze is managed by Stephen Comber, who for his main commercial enterprise, I was delighted to discover, has a flock of Easycares.
Both Richard and Stephen are thoughtful men, generous with their knowledge and deeply concerned about the future of livestock farming post-Brexit. Richard gave me a stark insight into the economic penalty of having to shear his Herdwicks: he has about 500 sheep and this year he received 33p for each fleece i.e. £165 in total. Shearing, however, cost £1.20 per sheep i.e. £600 in total. Moreover the greatest expense was gathering the flocks in from the hills for the shearing: this took 2 men and their dogs 5 days at £100 per man-day i.e. £1000. So the total cost was £1600 i.e. a net loss of £1435.
Anyway, I sounded out both of them on their willingness to get involved with a cross-breeding experiment, and was very pleased when they came on board. So last week found me with a borrowed horse-van picking up a fine, sturdy but somewhat grumpy one-eyed Herdwick ram from Richard’s farm.
Grumpy, I think, because Richard had already put his ‘tips’ (the Cumbrian dialect variant on tup or ram) in with his ewes and my guy seemed to be aware that he was missing out: he gave Richard a hearty farewell butt and stamped his foot at me when I tried to make friends.
Four hours later we were safely in Northumberland and he had mellowed enough to accept pieces of apple from me.
I am calling him Leif the Lucky (Lucky Leif for short) – this was the nickname of Leif Ericsson the first Norseman to reach North America, and seemed an appropriate name for a Viking sheep boldly going where none of his ilk have gone before and, I hope, founding a new breed. Also his missing eye gives him a slightly piratical look.
Herdwick rams have a reputation for exceptional agility and randiness, so Stephen, who had not yet put his tups with his ewes, was anxious to get Leif and the four chosen Easycare brides away from his main holding in case he tried some extra-curricular matings. This suited Leif who was enthusiastically investigating his unexpected harem even while in a sheep trailer with headroom only.
Lucky Leif and his ladies are now ensconced in a rank grassy paddock between the sand dunes and the reedbeds of the East Chevington Nature Reserve on the Northumberland coast. They seem to have settled in and I think they are happy.
So now we sit back and wait. The best scientific evidence is that the fleece-shedding switch gene is dominant so the lambs should inherit this from their mothers. However other genes and other factors are in play when it comes to the pattern, timing and completeness of the shedding. The health and diet of the sheep may play a role as well as its genetic heritage. For it to be a success, the experiment has to produce sheep that can live out on the mountains all year round as well as being self-shedding, and we are unlikely to be able to gauge the results properly until late 2019 or 2020. In the meantime though, I am looking forward to seeing if Leif’s lambs will have those white spots on the backs of their ears…..