MEET THE SHEEP

The Castlemilk Moorit flock of Dodg­son Wood

The Knitter - - Content -

LAST YEAR at Yarn­dale, a fam­ily vis­ited my stand and got chat­ting about sheep, fleece and the price of wool. As we ex­changed business cards, I was sur­prised to see the name of my fa­ther, John Atkin­son, printed on it - and so I had met an­other shep­herd called John Atkin­son!

To­gether, John and his part­ner Maria tend Nibth­waite Grange Farm in the Lake Dis­trict. John is the sixth-gen­er­a­tion owner, although his farm­ing fam­ily can be traced back to when lo­cal records be­gan some 600 years ago, to within three miles of the cur­rent farm. In con­trast, Maria is a rel­a­tive new­comer, hav­ing joined John full time on the farm four years ago.

Nibth­waite Grange is mainly a beef and sheep farm fo­cussing on con­ser­va­tion graz­ing, and so John and Maria keep tra­di­tional and na­tive sheep breeds, which are lighter and graze less se­lec­tively. John mainly shep­herds Che­viot sheep on the fell, and some Blue­faced Le­ices­ters.

Maria ex­plains how she be­came in­volved: “When we first got to­gether, I thought I’d like to have my own flock. Af­ter look­ing at the Rare Breed Sur­vival Trust (RBST) list, I chose Castlemilk Moorits be­cause of their el­e­gant good looks, in­ter­est­ing ge­net­ics, their his­tory, and the fact that their meat and fleece could make them a prof­itable as­set rather than a hobby.

“We bought a flock of 11 ewes, and their wild, flighty na­ture meant it took al­most two hours to load them into the trailer. Once home, they scared the sheep­dog by charg­ing at him, so try­ing to round them up filled us with dread. We in­vested in an­other dog whom the flock soon re­alised was the boss, and since then they have been much eas­ier to han­dle!

“Although I was not then a knit­ter, I added value to the fleece by hav­ing it spun into wool. The Castlemilk Moorit sta­ple length is very short, and with my ini­tial flock I didn’t have the min­i­mum quan­tity re­quired by the mill nd for pro­cess­ing, so blended it with some of our Che­viot ‘hogg’ (one-year-old lamb) fleece. The spun yarn felt lovely, and I was hooked!

“Since then I have ac­quired a flock of Teeswa­ters. I also breed Blue­faced Le­ices­ters, whose fleece blends beau­ti­fully with Castlemilk Moorit, mak­ing spin­ning eas­ier and the fin­ished yarn smoother.”

With their long legs, sil­very fawn fleece, and horns, at a dis­tance it is easy to mis­take Castlemilk Moorit for deer. A truly stun­ning sheep, they have a vir­tu­ally kemp (hair) free fleece, so it’s won­der­fully soft. Lambs are born with a thick, dark, choco­late-coloured coat, which bleaches in the sun to the dis­tinc­tive pale caramel.

As keen sup­port­ers of the RBST, John and Maria do what they can to pro­mote Castlemilk Moorits and en­cour­age other farm­ers to keep them. “We will con­tinue with our cur­rent flock of 25 ewes, keep­ing a few fe­male lambs and sell­ing on the other girls as breed­ing stock,” says Maria. “Bri­tish wool seems to be hav­ing a re­vival, and knit­ters are in­creas­ingly in­ter­ested in the prove­nance of their wool – it’s be­come a bit like fine wine! How­ever, I’d love to see this wool trend not be con­fined to the high-end mar­ket, but be­come a gen­eral sta­ple ma­te­rial again.” Visit www.dodg­son­wood.co.uk to find out more. Please note that the yarn will soon be re­branded as ‘Shear De­light’ with its own web­site, www.shearde­light.com

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