I regularly get hits on ”Bowmont sheep” or variations Please use the link to our website HERE For more detailed information.
The Bowmont was developed 25 years ago by The Macaulay Institute in Scotland (MLURI). The idea was to produce a hardy strain of Merino that could survive in the hill country of Scotland. They crossed white Shetland ewes with fine Saxon Merino ram semen sourced from the best flocks in Australia and New Zealand and crossed the resulting females back to more Merino semen to ensure the best quality genetics. That 75% cross was then “tweaked” with additional Merino input. Some of the sheep were much more than 75% Merino. The resources and the huge bank of semen was there to allow all of this genetic improvement but it still took 20 years of very hard work and refinement to produce the Bowmonts I have here today, i.e good consistent animals which produce fleeces between 14 and 19 microns.
There was never much interest in the project by Scottish hill farmers largely because they wanted bigger meat lambs from the Bowmont (which will produce a hill type lamb if run at a minimal level) and kept crossing them out to other breed rams so losing the wool quality. This exasperated the scientists who were working on the project and they quickly lost faith in the ability of the early partner farmers to “stick to the rules”!
The sheep were hardy but not quite as tough as was thought at first and failed to thrive in the harsh hill environment of the Scottish borders. The genetics used in the early days simply were not up to the job. The same problem arose in Wales when ADAS bought some and promptly lost many through weather conditions on their high hill research station. The Welsh flock also had a big problem with Johnes disease and lost many without intitally realising why. They also crossed out to more Shetland rams to increase hardiness and lost wool quality.
The very small Bowmont flock in Wales has now gone and the project closed. In its last years it was not breeding any Bowmonts at all having crossed out to other Shetlands to try to improve hardiness. They could not keep them alive in their extremely harsh conditions. The Bowmont Braf wool they produced (Braf by the way is Welsh for wool and is not a sign that the sheep is Welsh!!) was from the out-crossed sheep they were producing in the later part of the project and has now finished.
My Bowmont sheep were bought in 2005 from the MLURI research farm in Scotland after a great deal of thought. I was conscious of some pressure on me by the staff up there to keep the project going ie to continue the work of creating a Superfine strain of Merino suitable for British conditions. They knew I already had their cashmere goats and was interested in fibre quality above everything else.
It was a big commitment, taking on the result of 20+ years work by a very dedicated, high powered team of staff. I am very fortunate that they have all continued their strong interest in these animals (and the cashmere goats) and fall over backwards to help me at every turn. I also have very strong connections with the Superfine Wool industry in Australia and their technical expertise is enormously helpful to me.
Each sheep has a pedigree longer than mine and can be traced back to the original cross. Each sheep also has full fibre test details. This is something which is not an “optional extra” but an essential part of maintaining a wool flock. Claims of quality are meaningless unless they can be backed up by pure science.
The rams I used for breeding this year (2011/12) have Mean Fibre Diameter results of 14.6, 14.7, 15.1, 16.7, 17.1, 17.4, and 18.1 microns respectively with a CV of under 20. This puts these rams in the Super Fine Merino class and, on a world stage, classes their wool as fine as cashmere. Ages ranges from 2-4yrs for these results. Testing and checking quality is an obsession. You cannot BEGIN to produce fine wool or cashmere if you have no testing programme. It is extremely expensive. Over £1000 a year here goes on testing Bowmont and cashmere samples.
I have the highest possible export health status here and belong to schemes (Maedi Visna and Scrapie) run by SRUC which require blood tests at regular intervals and adherence to very strict rules. I have also embarked on an extensive programme of semen and embryo storage to preserve the original bloodlines and also the new ones I have created. I am committed to keeping these sheep going. They are well worth it!
Going back to basics and starting new bloodlines from Merino Shetland crosses is not an option to increase numbers. I’ve had long discussions with the original scientists involved and all have said the same thing – a few animals would be pointless. When they started they had HUNDREDS of ewes bred to Merinos. It was from that point that there was 20 years of selection work done. Quality of the initial animals is key . Remember not everything called Merino is a fine wool producer! Merino is a general term applied to many varieties of fine wool sheep in the world but without PROVEN origin and a history of wool testing to establish quality and consistency they are not candidates for use. Amateur crossing of a few mediocre animals will NEVER produce a consistent, quality result.
The wool of course is to die for!!! I have small amounts of fleece for sale to hand spinners each year but the vast majority goes to Finisterre my company buyer which is backing me all the way and is committed to the sheep for the forseeable future. I have to honour that commitment by giving them as much fleece as possible so the amounts for hand spinning are limited. This is the trade-off I must make in order to ensure a future for these sheep. So to those who have asked for whole fleeces and been offered 100g, that’s the reason!!
Please note: WE DO NOT SELL BREEDING STOCK. The sheep are a unique, very precious genetic resource and we need all we have to develop and further refine the wool. In addition they require extensive knowledge and understanding of fine wool science to do them justice, something we are still learning of course but which we have now have 8 years experience of.
Type Bowmont into the SEARCH button on the RHS of this Blog to find all my posts about the sheep. Or see Devon Fine Fibres where there is an extensive page on the animals.
Update Autumn 2012:
Had a visit from the ex Farm Manager of the Bowmont/Cashmere project who wrote “Excellent work being done here”. The James Hutton Institute (the new name for the MLURI) also commented that the Fine Fibre Project “is clearly in a safe pair of hands.” Was I pleased? What do you think!
Update Summer 2013:
Breeding has continued since we took on the sheep and further refinement of the wool. We now have our first crop of Bowmont Merinos with new Australian genetics. Thsee lambs are another step on my way to completing the project the Macaulay Institute started. Cant wait to see their test results around Christmas time but looking good so far!