200 years ago, Merino sheep were a common sight in our part of England. Like the rest of Europe, we grew their wonderful wool to make the very finest cloth. But when we colonised Australia, we lost that tradition. While European countries continued to “grow their own”, we imported from our new colony where they had space and labour for millions of sheep.
Now, after two centuries of development in Australia, we have brought modern Superfine Merinos home. Superfine is an industry term referring to wool which is below 18.5 micron in diameter – the sort of wool usually found in the finest next-to-skin sports wear. We work closely with partners in Australia to make sure we produce wool of the right type for our conditions. There are multiple strains of Merino sheep and, even within the Superfine category, several different types. It is essential to know what works where, to avoid making costly mistakes.
Cashmere goats are not part of the UK farming tradition. Cashmere has been processed in Scotland for 200 years but not farmed in the UK commercially. Our Mongolian grade Cashmere goats have been with us for 13 years. They are a unique flock derived from some of the major cashmere producing countries in the world. Selectively bred for quality and quantity they are a joy to keep. It is a privilege to know these proud, semi-feral and delightful animals.
We run approximately 500 Merinos and Cashmere goats on our farm here in Devon. For most of the year they live outside, enjoying free access to pasture. We walk among them daily, checking to make sure all is well. They have nothing to fear from us and it shows.
We use a dog to help gather our flocks. Coming with us usually means something good or at the least, a change of scene, and the dog is simply a help for gathering those who cannot hear our voice over the wind or the distance.
Bree is gentle yet forceful when she needs to be. This photo shows her “Off Duty” with a group of ram lambs.
These sheep know she is having some quiet time. As soon as she is alert and in work mode, they will snap to it and listen to what she says. There’s mutual understanding and respect here – not fear – a relationship we like to see throughout our farm enterprise.
This little kid has no fear of the dog. Again, he knows that Bree will not hurt him but he learns to respond to her quick, unpredictable movements behind him when she is working to move the flock.
Winter can be a tough time on the farm. The goats take no notice of the snow when it comes, scratching away at the snow with sharp hooves to reach the grss underneath, but they have free access to the barns at all times for extra food and shelter from the bitter winds.
The sheep spend most of the winter inside because they are often shorn in late autumn and must stay in the warm barn until their wool has grown. A Devon winter is hard on man and beast with frozen pipes, frozen fingers and endless filling of feed racks to keep every animal topped up against the cold.
We take great care harvesting the fibre from our animals. The Cashmeres are combed in the spring . It takes a VERY long time and lots of patience and experience. Yields are low so many goats are needed to make any cashmere enterprise viable. Goats lead long, productive lives. Even at 10 they can still be producing good cashmere and we currently have a venerable old lady of 15 still going strong.
The sheep are shorn at various times of the year. Following the Australian system we shear by wool length not by any timetable. Different mobs and age groups are shorn at different times from one year to the next. Shearing Superfine Merinos is a very different skill from shearing typical British sheep and the better the wool the more difficult they are without the correct technique and equipment. Many UK shearers say they have shorn Merinos in Australia and New Zealand but, there are Merinos and Merinos! Some are relatively coarse woolled, but the finest and the best are a VERY different proposition. Our shearer has had to slow down dramatically and change technique. It is simply not possible to shear these very good Superfine Merinos as fast as coarser woolled British sheep. We also insist on a clean, sterilised shearing trailer being used every time our shearer visits. Biosecurity is a priority.
Of course, this is expensive. Shearing costs are extremely high for a large Superfine enterprise like ours but, it’s a non-negotiable cost from our point of view. Welfare at shearing is a priority.
Welfare is key to all that we do here. It extends from helping animals into the world if mum needs a hand, right through to knowing when the end has come and making sure an aged or sick animal makes a swift, kind exit. Care and compassion are rewarded by animals which are easy to handle and, quite simply, a joy and a privilege to know. Contact is never forced but to have an animal willingly come and ask for the touch of your hand is a real pleasure we enjoy regularly.