Davina Stanhope tells Debbie Kingsley about her Cotswold sheep
Davina Stanhope’s Cotswolds
Davina Stanhope is a busy woman. The current chairman of the Cotswold Sheep Society is a fulltime farmer, with just under 100 acres of permanent grassland in Shropshire under her jurisdiction. She keeps Red Devon cattle and three breeds of Longwool sheep — Cotswold being the main breed. She even shears them herself.
“I must admit this is done over several days,” laughs the lady whose other Longwools are the Leicester and the Teeswater.
Davina expects her livestock to give her good returns. “I find it easier to keep one type of sheep as the management system is all the same,” says Davina, referring to the Longwool. “Our traditional breeds are more suited to surviving here and they utilise what grass and herbage is available far better than the commercial breeds.”
The majority of Davina’s ground is light, being sand and rock, which burns off in the summer leaving very little grass for the livestock.
“It is what is called ‘autumn ground’,” she explains. “And luckily as long as we get autumn rain, the grass suddenly appears just in time for flushing the ewes ready for the rams to go in.”
Thirty-five out of the 100 acres consists of pools and marshland, which boast a wealth of birds. On some days you can catch glimpses of oyster catchers and swans, goldfinches and lapwings.
Davina’s love of sheep goes back a long way. She began with a commercial flock, but a visit to a London art gallery changed her life. She saw an old painting of some large sheep with very long wool, lovely white faces and big kind eyes and from that moment she was hooked.
“I endeavoured to find out what they were,” she says. “It turned out that they were Cotswold sheep and so it was goodbye commercial sheep and my love of the Cotswold began.”
Davina acquired her first two ewes in 1997 and shortly after that purchased three more: a ram lamb and a shearling ewe from the Cookbury Flock and a shearling ewe from the Oakhill Flock.
“To this day you can still see the influence that these contributed to my flock,” she adds. These were followed by a few more purchases and the introduction of her home-bred lambs. The flock has since grown exponentially and Davina now has in the region of 145 Cotswolds, 35 Leicester Longwools and 35 Teeswaters.
“I also have 10 rams which have all been selected for their bloodlines and breed traits that hopefully they will pass on,” she says. “It’s not all that easy to get totally unrelated rams and this year I used AI on some of my ewes. I also brought in four ewes not immediately related to mine in the hope that I might get a good ram lamb — it is too early to know yet. This year we lambed at 260%, helped by the Teeswaters which are very prolific.” Davina finds Cotswold sheep big, but particularly docile. “They weigh up the situation before making a decision and if running away is necessary they will do it, but in most cases they would rather not. I find that I don’t need a sheepdog as it is far less trouble to get them to follow a bucket, or, in my case, the quad bike as it might just have some food on it. In fact, I find that they have little respect for a sheepdog, although I do have a rather unusual cat who not only rides on the quad bike on the morning rounds, but will sit in the gateway and stop the sheep coming through. They are not keen on coming past him for some reason, especially when he looks them straight in the eye. He will even scratch their noses if challenged.” Cotswold sheep are hardy and Davina found that they coped well with the dark and difficult days of the 2017/18 winter. Only those that had lambed were inside. “They are good on their feet and they keep their teeth much longer than any commercial breed,” says Davina. “I have
a few old ladies of 10 years and over, all with their teeth intact. They are easy during lambing and excellent mothers and always know how many lambs they have. If one is getting independent and has gone exploring you certainly know about it. They also recognise their own older offspring. I often discover a small group together and generally find that it is a ewe and her daughter and granddaughters. They all have particular characters and mannerisms which they seem to pass to their offspring. I have one old lady who was successfully shown when younger, but she made you work for any success. All her daughters are the same.”
Although, as their name would suggest, Cotswold sheep are generally situated in the Cotswolds, there are a growing number of flocks all over the country, said to number around 83, with approximately 1,400 breeding ewes. They are a lowland sheep, despite living on the Cotswold Hills. Their fleece brought great wealth to the Cotswolds, the earliest reference being around 1319 in the Great Charter of Llanthony Priory.
Cotswold wool, which is soft and has a lovely lustre, was exported around the world and at one time accounted for almost half of England’s total income. Sadly, times have changed and the wool is no longer in great demand due to new technology and man-made fibres, but there is a growing interest from individuals wishing to renew old traditions and crafts.
“As they are such large sheep you obviously get a bigger carcase and the lambs take a while to get to the correct finish at between 45-48kg,” explains Davina. “Ewe lambs will get to this weight more quickly than ram lambs. As with all rare and traditional breeds, the lambs take longer to finish than commercial lambs, but this gives enhanced flavour. Cotswold sheep also produce very good mutton.”
Davina sells meat and wool and gets repeat business, which she feels is proof of a good product.
“Last year I took some lambs along to meet the public at a local supermarket and it was good to hear people saying that they use a butcher to purchase their meat as it always tastes better. The majority of my ram lambs are fattened and sold for meat, if not in boxes from home, at the local livestock market, where they are usually bought by the same buyer,” notes Davina.
The full-time farmer is keen on showing her sheep and their fleece as it provides a shop widow for the breed, “especially if you can manage to get into the interbreed competitions and even better be placed in them”, adds Davina, who also judges Cotswolds and other breeds. “My holidays are either days out at shows with my own sheep or days spent judging other people’s.” For more information on the Cotswold Sheep Society, visit: www.cotswoldsheepsociety.co.uk/
I have a rather unusual cat who not only rides on the quad bike on the morning rounds, but will sit in the gateway and stop the sheep coming through. They are not keen on coming past him, especially when he looks them straight in the eye. He will scratch their noses if challenged
Davina (right) generally spends her holidays at shows