WINDY HALL HEBRIDEAN SHEEP
Spring 2015 – Windy Hall Celestite (the mineral name of Strontium sulphate) born 4th April 2010. There is a convention that all lambs born in the same year have names that start with the same letter of the alphabet. All lambs born at Windy Hall in 2010 had names starting with C. Also, as David is a geologist, all the names are mineral names. Celestite is investigating Diane’s wellies hoping for some ‘cake’.
Our first Hebridean sheep were purchased simply to mow the grass in the paddock. For about 10 years we were happy to have just this half dozen sheep & their lambs, but as the years passed these intelligent, curious, little black sheep with attitude became an ever greater part of our lives. To accommodate more sheep we bought a nearby 10 acre restored domestic refuse tip and rented a further 20 acres of land. We now had enough land to carry out the experimental breeding programmes that we felt were needed to answer questions about particular aspects of these sheep (inheritance of fleece colour & spotting, numbers of horns, length of tails etc).
When we started to keep St Kilda (or Hebridean sheep as they were later renamed) they were defined as a Rare Breed by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust and only a few hundred survived. In fact, no-one knew for certain where they came from. Such a challenge should not be dangled in front of research scientists – we spent 4 years in the late 1990s unearthing details about the breed and in 2000 published our findings in a 259 page book entitled ‘Black Sheep of Windermere: a History of the St Kilda or Hebridean Sheep’. In summary, these engaging little brown/black crofters’ sheep came from North Uist in the 1860s becoming exotic parkland animals grazing the grounds around aristocratic mansions. By the most amazing coincidence a flock was established at Storrs Hall, Windermere, in the 1870s and we were able to trace many of the parkland flocks in England back to this Windermere flock. Our house, Windy Hall, had been part of the Storrs Hall estate at that time – we wonder whether there might even have been St Kilda sheep here in the 1870s & 1880s. Continuing research has turned up additional details, but the main story has withstood the test of time (The ARK, Spring 2011).
The Windermere flock at Storrs Hall survives as an 1884 photograph and so we have a good idea of what these sheep looked like in their early days as parkland animals (magnificent 4-horned rams & many ewes with scur-type horns, silvered fleeces and spectacular woolly topknots). Sadly, the pressures of the show-ring over the past 30 years have led to the breed changing out of all recognition. Nearly all sheep have been selected for 2-horns and for very black fleeces – both features which were uncommon in earlier years.
We are interested in the genetic conservation of this breed and so do not get involved in showing our sheep. However David has judged at various shows, including the Kentmere Sheep Show, The Westmorland Show, The Royal Three Counties, The Great Yorkshire, The Border Union at Kelso, The Scottish Smallholders and Grower Festival and for NASSA. In this way he tries to ameliorate the worst of these selective trends.
We do however, show our sheep in mid-April at Damson Day a local event in the Lyth Valley which celebrates the damsons for which the valley is famous Lake District Gems. We add an educational element about the history of Windermere and try to inform people, especially children, about the ancient sheep of Britain.
Our sheep are as close to the 1880s sheep as we can manage although ewes with great woolly topknots do seem to have become extinct despite our best efforts. Many of our ewes are scurred, a few are truly polled and some are 2 or 4 horned – we try to keep a complete genetic spectrum. We also have many sheep which have developed silver-grey fleeces as they age – a feature of the 1880s sheep. We supply breeding stock to flock keepers who are interested in maintaining the original type of St Kilda sheep. In fact, we wonder whether these sheep should not be referred to as St Kilda or St Kilda Parkland sheep, leaving the black, 2-horned, show animals to be called Hebridean sheep. There are other flock keepers who share the same ethos including Juliet and Gordon Johnston and who keep the Wester Gladstone Flock.
Our fleeces have for some years gone to be woven by Laura at Lauras Loom as she appreciates the great range of brown/black/ silver wool to be found within them. The black horns are much in demand by local stickmakers.
Sometimes there are problems and we become surrogate parents. Shorna Sheep was orphaned in 2010 and so joined the gardening crew. She became the star of our NGS Open Day that year and is now the flock matriarch.
However lambing problems are rare, the ewes get on with their job and are rewarded with a little extra breakfast.
Over winter the sheep are fed extra rations, this is especially important for the ewes. They are fed on a mix of hay, pelleted sugar beet and ‘cake’ – a feed that has a good balance of nutrients. As the lambs grow in the uterus the ewes eat less hay and more ‘cake’ – it is less bulky. They also have access to a mineral or treacle lick. The soils in the Lake District can be short of the elements needed for good animal health, partly because of the rock composition and partly due to the very high rainfall which leaches the soil.