We have been handling the sheep a lot over the last few days. Firstly we have been running some tests with our vet, then we were selling some castrated males to my good friend Richard. Last Friday was dagging day and then at the weekend we split the ewes into breeding groups and placed sponges in those we want to use for AI this year.
All this activity meant bringing them in from wet fields to dry warm pens for a while. Not one sheep has complained about it so far! When they first came in they were disgustingly dirty looking with wet wool – or so you might think from running your hand over them. But, within 48 hours, despite the chilly temperatures in the barn, they were transformed. The fleeces looked clean and they were dry to the touch. Most of the dirt is superficial in the top 0.5cm and brushes off as it dries and the sheep rub against each other. The water just does not penetrate the dense Merino fleece. Down a cm and it’s pristine white and bright.
Much of this is down to careful breeding by The Macaulay Institute who chose from their hundreds of Bowmonts those with fleeces which would withstand British weather. That means very dense, packed wool with tight bundles. In the early days of the project, 25 years ago now, some of their sheep inherited the loose, long fleeces of the original Shetland cross used in the first breedings. These were a disaster when trying to produce true Merino and were very quickly bred out or sold to less particular farmers. The only thing wanted from the Shetland was its hardiness – not its wool which, although quite fine is nowhere near fine enough nor does it have any of the other necessary characteristics of a good Merino. More Saxon genes were added in regularly to develop the right fleece while still maintaining that hardiness and good mothering from the Shetland.
So, fleece , or rather staple “bundling” is yet another characteristic I have to keep very firmly in mind as I continue the Macaulay’s very careful work breeding the sheep. These animals are valueless if they can’t produce top quality Superfine Merino under BRITISH conditions.
Work and technical jobs are the priority when we bring the sheep inside like this but I’m acutely aware that these are my living charges over whom I have dominion and for whom I have responsibility. They are sentient beings with so much to give apart from their wonderful wool. My own reserves of energy, mental and physical have taken a battering over the last few months and spending time with my sheep is always a privilege and a restorative. It’s a pleasure to have a cuddle when they permit it. Stroking a soft, white, velvety sheep nose is a real treat for me and from their reaction, I think it’s the same for them. They can move away at any time; it’s their choice – but they very rarely make the first move. I am their shepherd and they are my sheep. It’s as simple as that. A very special bond.
(Yes I know this is a lamb and it’s the wrong time of the year but it’s cute!)