Jayne and Steve Dryden have built up a successful business selling the fleeces of their Bluefaced Leicester sheep. They tell Debbie Kingsley about the breed with the aristocratic presence, phenomenal wool and surprising ability to leap almost any obstacle
Bluefaced Leicester sheep
Jayne and Steve Dryden purchased a derelict house and discovered five sheep had moved into the garden. “I was hooked,” says Jayne. “I’ve always loved knitting and the thought of taking sheep through to the wool stage and selling it really excited me.”
Fast forward about seven years and now the couple’s main business on their 150-acre North Cotswold holding is wool — wool from rare breed, ethically produced, slaughter-free Wensleydale and Bluefaced Leicester sheep. They sell almost any kind of fleece anyone could imagine — raw, washed and dyed, as well as individual locks, hand spun art yarn, commercially dyed and worsted spun wool, plus a range of knitting kits. Some of the latter are designed by Jayne, some by her sister and some by specialist designers.
“We sell at craft shows, woolly events and a few local wool shops, but our main sales are through our website. We sell wool all over the world,” says Jayne. “But it’s been a long process getting here. First we needed to improve our pasture so that our sheep could be grass fed and then we built up a healthy pedigree flock and found good scourers, spinners and dyers.”
Jayne and Steve started to keep Bluefaced Leicesters about five years ago. Jayne added hundreds of miles to her car’s milometer when she drove to Cumbria, the Scottish Borders and Wales to attend pedigree sales.
“I ended up buying myself a quality starter flock for the finest soft longwool they produce. Bluefaced Leicester wool is incredibly lustrous and is often mixed with other breeds’ wool to improve it. In its pure state, or mixed with Wensleydale, it gives a smooth wool that is incredible to feel and knit. Customers often ask why our wool is different and the answer is because it is pure Bluefaced Leicester/Wensleydale with no other fibres — and also that I take extremely good care of my flock.”
Bluefaced Leicesters aren’t the easiest to manage; with their thin skins and fleeces they need a bit of coddling. But they boast excellent conformation and are good mothers, providing plenty of milk.
“The phrase I often encounter for Bluefaced Leicesters is the brutal ‘they need a sharp shovel and a short memory’, which is unfair,” says Jayne. “But you do need to look after them. You can’t just turn them out and forget them. They need checking daily, shelter from the wind and rain and some supplementary feeding through the winter. In return, you get a fantastic fleece and an athletic, muscular ewe that has an aristocratic presence.”
Other reasons the Drydens have been beguiled by the Bluefaced Leicester are their temperaments and their curiosity.
“In time they will approach you in the field, which makes checking them so much
easier,” continues Jayne. However, Jayne and Steve haven’t been so pleased at their charges’ ability to jump hurdles. “They are as athletic as a racehorse,” Jayne laughs.
With more than 1,300 members in the flock book, the Bluefaced Leicester is clearly popular all over the UK and Ireland. It is easy to select new bloodlines for a flock due to the breed being so well distributed across the land.
“I have helped people begin their small starter flocks from Cornwall to Kent and Gloucester to East Anglia,” says Jayne. “Anyone looking to buy them can either go to the sales in Carlisle, Kelso or Builth Wells, or come to breeders like myself who have travelled and built flocks from a diverse set of high quality bloodlines. All the breeders I have met are incredibly helpful to new starters and the breed society is one of the most professional and well organised I have encountered.
“I would definitely recommend the Bluefaced Leicester to smallholders — they are a trusty sheep with real character, although they are not a sheep that would go for meat.”
Jayne and Steve have little time to show their sheep, although they can be found at the odd large local show.
“We pick out the cleanest sheep at the time closest to the show. I’m afraid we’re not very good with halter training, but we manage and I’m delighted to say that we generally come either first or second. Steve prefers the society shows as there is no halter training and the sheep are turned loose in the ring. But we don’t breed to produce show animals — we breed to produce healthy sheep with good wool. We started our flock with a selection of the finest UK pedigrees and continue to breed to these superior standards.”
Jayne and Steve are proud of the fact that their well cared for flock of sheep never has to endure the stresses of the slaughter house. If a ram doesn’t look like he will make good pedigree material, he is wethered and kept for his wool.
“I also sell rams all over the country for breeding and replacement breeding ewes to farmers who are looking for good pedigree stock,” says Jayne. “Our sheep don’t enter the meat market. I spend many months finding good homes for our older sheep as grass-cutters. They are hardy, low maintenance and will live to around 10 years old.
“I was very lucky this year to find a lovely lady who took 40 of our older ewes to live out their days happily in some beautiful fields where they can’t possibly finish all the grass. There are, of course, older sheep that I could never part with. My oldest is Danielle, who came from Yorkshire many years ago. She’s 14.”
Also living on Jayne and Steve’s ancient ridge and furrow land, which is as organic as the couple can make it without going through the expensive process of registration, are a couple of black Lincoln Longwools and Herdwicks, Berkshire breeding sows, a Berkshire boar, a few Tamworths and Gloucestershire Old Spots, rare breed chickens and geese and a couple of Shire horses.
“Our pigs are free range and we sell pedigree Berkshires and cross-bred weaners to enthusiasts,” concludes Jayne.
For the myriad animals here, this place must be a kind of heaven on earth.
For more information on Jayne and Steve Dryden’s business, visit www. homefarmwensleydales.com. For more information on the Bluefaced Leicester sheep, visit www.blueleicester.co.uk/
Jayne Dryden became hooked on sheep after finding some in the garden of a derelict house she bought
Jayne sells rams all over the country for breeding
The Bluefaced Leicester is popular around the UK
The Drydens’ sheep are never sold on for meat
The Bluefaced Leicester dates back to 1700