MEET THE SHEEP
The Castlemilk Moorit flock of Dodgson Wood
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