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September 2021

John: For a change I thought I would reflect on what’s been a hectic month on and off the farm. As I indicated in my last article, Autumn  is a month for sheep sales and the end of summer sees the biggest show in Cumbria. Earlier in the year I was honoured to be asked to judge the “Any other Rare Breed Sheep” classes at the Westmorland Show. This is a class for the breeds of sheep that don’t have their own section and it’s often quite a task as the varieties of breeds can be quite diverse. The Westmorland didn’t disappoint with one of the smallest British breed, the Portland, up against the Oxford Down, the largest. While I was waiting to start my mornings work I was interviewed by Caz Graham for Radio Four’s Farming Today programme. We chatted about the wonderful diversity within the British sheep breeds, each one with its unique attributes linked to the area of the country where it originated. Caz asked how I could possibly judge such a diverse class. I explained that I look for the functionality and conformity more than the breed specific attributes. Firstly has it has to have good teeth and feet so it can graze the fields or fells; secondly it has to be anatomically correct; then its fleece has to be correct for the environment where it originate. So if it’s a hill breed the fleece needs to be tight to shed the rain and keep the animal warm in winter; the longwools must have a crimp in their wool and a long staple length. Lastly I will look at the character and general health of the sheep and if it shows itself off well. It needs to be alert, its eyes clear and bright, its wool clear of debris and its face and legs clean. These last points are as much to do with the art and skills of the shepherds in getting the animals ready for the show. A good shepherd can make the difference in a tight class, presenting the sheep in good condition and stood correctly will catch the judges eye over a sheep which is standing badly or jumping about.

To encourage the next generation the RBST (Rare Breed Survival Trust) set up a national competition for Young Shepherds to provide coaching and competition for children to develop their skills and gain experience in the show ring. It has been a great success with most of the major shows having classes for the young shepherds with the winner from each show going on to a National Final. This competition is judged on the skills and knowledge of the shepherds rather than their sheep. It’s been so successful that this year we’ve had two ex young shepherds judging the next generation.  This year, with the Westmorland being a two day event, I returned on the Thursday to run the Young Shepherds event after dropping some lambs of to be sold at J36 auction on route. It was a shame to miss out on a day at the auction catching up with folk but with the sheep trade being buoyant and more important matters to deal with, a second day at the show  wasn’t too great a hardship. It turned out to be a very special day for both the young shepherds and myself as we got to chat to Princess Anne and Sophie Duchess of Wessex as part of their visit to the show. It was such a wonderful experience for the children and one they and I will not forget. We talked about the different breeds on show, the questions asked by the judge and the art of showmanship. 

As one of the young competitors said “I didn’t win but it’s ok as I met a Princess”

Maria: We had a team from Countryfile visit the farm a few weeks ago for a short feature about a new wool project. It’s a business I dreamt up after looking through the criterion for some funding recently made available to farmers in the Lake District called FIPL (Farming in Protected Landscapes). 

The project, Lake District Tweed – Hefted Cloth, will create a range of unique tweeds from wool collected from farms around the main valleys in the Lake District. I asked the Lancs & Lakes Guild of Spinners, Weavers and Dyers to run a competition amongst their members to design distinct cloths based on unique characteristics from each valley. The Guild formed in 1953 in Kendal, the heart of wool production for hundreds of years. They will bring a deep knowledge of wool, a love of the Lakes and its histories and have the skills to translate these into tweed designs. 

In the first year, we’re just focussing on making four tweeds; Coniston, Ullswater, Windermere and Ennerdale. We’ve collected the wool from farmers we know, 500kg for each valley, so two tons in total. John has arranged a wagon to pick it up and take it to Bradford to be washed. After that it will be sent to Yorkshire to be combed and spun and then it will be sent to Lancashire to be woven. I’m trying to keep each process as close to the Lakes as possible to reduce our carbon footprint but working with commercial scale businesses that will keep the final price down.

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