My fascination with sheep has grown over the last couple of years, but I think it really started when I was about eight years old.
I grew up in a house at the side of a potholed track, surrounded by farmland. On the opposite side of the track was a field which often contained sheep. My parents still live in the same house, and the field opposite still has sheepy residents – a gang of mud covered Cheviots last time I visited. At the top of the track, before it peters out into a grassy path across the hills that skirt the West Pennine Moors, there are two farms. For a few months in the 1980s, I went to one of those farms for a couple of hours after school each day to be child-minded by the farmer’s wife.
The farmhouse was always a riot of activity. The farmer and his wife had three children, all younger and louder than I was, and they would all be running about causing chaos along with my noisy little sister and an assortment of other kids who were waiting for their parents to finish work. Even as a child I preferred quiet and calm and I often found the whole situation overwhelming. In the corner of the farmyard was a small outbuilding where the children’s pet sheep lived. I recall that of them was called Samantha. They were quiet and docile, and much better company than the herd of infants stampeding around the house. I would sit on the bench in the corner of the shed and read a book, comforted by the soothing snuffle-bleats and sheepy scent.
There are still a handful of pet sheep living at the top of the track my parents live on, including this magnificent coloured Ryeland ram who was found wandering a local housing estate as a lamb. None of the local farmers knew who he belonged to, so some neighbours of my parents who live on a smallholding adopted him and bought him a harem of Ryeland ewes to keep him company.
When my sister and I started going to a different child-minder who didn’t live on a sheep farm, I didn’t really have much more to do with sheep for decades. I still lived surrounded by fields full of them, but they were just part of the landscape. It never really occurred to me that there were different breeds of sheep. As far as I was aware, there were sheep with white faces, sheep with black faces, and very occasionally I’d spot a rare and elusive all black sheep. I grew up, moved into a large town, and for years sheep barely crossed my mind.
Almost two years ago, my husband and I moved to a much smaller town that clings to the slopes of the West Pennine Moors not far from where I grew up. My home is right on the edge of the town, with woodland carved through by deep cloughs and waterfalls, and vast, bleak moorland dotted with hilltop follies, all minutes walk from my front door. Once again I can look out of my living-room window and see a field full of sheep.
As soon as I moved in, I was fascinated by the sheep in the field next door, partly because they had a guard llama watching over them, which seemed terribly exotic, and partly because they looked unlike any sheep I had encountered before. They had magnificent erect horns – sometimes four on a single ewe – and brown and cream polkadot fleeces. Their lambs were some of the most adorable little creatures I had ever seen. After a bit of googling, I discovered that they were Jacob sheep and the internet rabbit hole I fell down opened my eyes to the amazing variety of sheep breeds there are in the world. I spent hours watching YouTube videos of cute Valais Blacknose sheep and cartoon-looking English longwool breeds. I started paying attention to the different types of sheep that lived near me – tall, leggy Mules and fat-bottomed Texels on the low fields, Half-bred Welsh, Derbyshire Gritstones and Cheviots on the exposed slopes and curly horned Dalesbred, Swaledale and Lonk sheep wandering the tops of the highest, windiest hills.
Then, last September, I attended Kendal Wool Gathering and in the livestock tent I saw tiny Ouessant sheep, tall Border Leicesters with rabbit-like ears, and I saw stalls upon stalls of rare breed yarns. Suddenly my fascination with sheep and my love of crocheting merged, and since then I have been researching native sheep breeds and their wool with an obsessive interest. I have read every sheep related book in the local adult library catalogue, followed many sheep farmers on Twitter and read countless websites belonging to breed societies and sheep and wool related organisations. I spend a lot of time day-dreaming about my ideal small flock of Shetland sheep in a kaleidoscope of fleece colours… one day, one day!
The local farmer has got rid of the small Jacob flock, so I no longer have polkadot neighbours. The field is now home to a flock of Derbyshire Gritstone sheep who are much friendlier than the timid and flighty Jacob sheep and are still very cute. I have realised that individual sheep have their own personalities and behaviours, contrary to popular belief. Some of the neighbour sheep show no interest in people at all, some will flee at the mere sound of hiking boots on a footpath fifty yards away, and others will run towards anyone who stands close to fence, just in case they have food. In the field next door there are about twelve sheep who always gallop across to greet me.
A few times a week I slice up a couple of carrots into enough batons to go around, and hand feed these sheep. I probably shouldn’t feed someone else’s sheep, but they sometimes get various vegetables, including carrots, left for them by the farmer and they aren’t organic sheep, so I can’t imagine that an extra chunk of carrot will make any difference to their diet. Feeding the sheep always cheers me up and reminds me of feeding Samantha and the other pet sheep on the farm when I was a kid.
I call the particularly bulbous sheep at the front of this photo Greedy Gerta because she is always first to the fence, and will barge the other ewes out of the way to steal their share of carrot. She will try and climb over the fence and start eating my clothes and fingers if she thinks she hasn’t been given enough.
There is also a very friendly little ewe who seems to really like having her photo taken and will hang around pushing her nose towards the camera long after the last chunk of carrot is gone and the other sheep have lost interest and wandered off. I should probably name her after a supermodel. Naomi, maybe? Does she look like a Naomi to you?
Some of the sheep are brave enough to approach the fence, but not eat from my hand. They hang back behind the tame sheep so I have to lob a handful of carrot over the front row of eagerly munching sheep to ensure the shy ones get a treat too. All of the ewes are currently very round and pregnant, none more so than Gerta.
This ram is the daddy. I can tell because not only is he the only ram in the field, he also has a blue patch of raddle (greasy paint) on his chest that matches the blue smears on all the ladies’ bottoms to show exactly where he has been. For a big, brutish looking Texel (I think he’s a Texel anyway) he is actually quite timid, and needs quite a bit of coaxing to take carrot from my hand!
So if you are feeling a bit down with the winter blues, find some local sheep and have a chat with them. It works wonders, I promise. Also, ‘Identify that Sheep Breed’ is a great way to pass the time on long train rides and and car journeys through the countryside. It beats I-Spy!