Friday, 13 June 2008

Why Ryelands?


One of the many reasons why we chose Ryeland sheep over the other breeds was that they look cute. This overrode all other considerations when choosing what animal would provide us with an abundance of lamb chops for the rest of our lives.
We first saw them at the Three Counties Show, a fantastic event where those that do and those that want to farm get to mingle with farmers and farm animals of all shapes and sizes. When we were in the sheep shed we were drawn to the Ryeland as the lambs looked so appealing. As you can see from the picture Daffodil looks very very tasty, I mean appealing.
Even Mad Keith our hermit felt compelled to leap out of the bushes one day and grab my arm as I was passing to enquire what sort our sheep were. He had never seen any sheep like them, “The lambs look just like Teddy Bears!” he shouted as I prised his fingers from my arm and ran away down the track.

Having sheep that produce bear like offspring is hardly a basis for a flock I know but luckily for us they are the ideal smallholders sheep as they are good natured, easily tamed, small and not prone to illness or complications. Well that’s what the “How To Keep Sheep” book says but as stated in previous episodes most “How to….” books are written by experts whose grip on reality is not as firm as it might be. The book glosses over peculiarities of the Ryeland, in fact it minimises all problems regarding shepherding.

Ryelands are without doubt great sheep, the breed is an old one, thought to date back to Roman times, its hardy, able to forage for food and can thrive on poor pasture. They have a habit of producing one lamb a year which matures slowly and the meat is excellent whilst the wool is one of the finest fleeces known to sheepkind. It was renowned for its wool and it used to be referred to as Lemster Ore, due to the high prices the fleece would fetch at a local market. In a nutshell that’s what the book will tell you about the breed.

What they don’t tell you is that the term flock can be better described by the word Gang, and that they are incredibly greedy sheep who are driven by their desire to eat and whilst they can thrive on poor pasture they do that when there are no other options. For example, as a gang they wait round corners of outbuildings in the early hours of the morning watching for their part time shepherd carrying buckets of feed. They then have two choices, either mug their ever so patient owner, or let the goats get him while they run around the back of the building and rush to food store in the hope that he has forgotten to bolt the door thus leaving sacks of grain and sheep nuts unguarded and ripe for plunder. Should that fail they can always fall back on plan B where they run over to the chickens and lick up their corn scattered in all directions by the shepherd as he tries to beat off the goats.

By ignoring the goat human melee they add to their calorific consumption but once the majority of the grain has been hoovered up, or once they get bored of having geese angrily hanging onto their ears the flock moves stealthily over to the dog food bin. Here they find Poppy valiantly defending said bin. A semi circle of menacing wool forms around the hapless Golden Retriever and very slowly with menace aforethought they close in. Knowing full well her limitations the dog bows out gracefully and rushes over to mount a rear guard action defending her owner from the goats. If the sheep are lucky they get a few mouthfuls of dog munchies before they are driven off by a quick reaction force of owner and the braver members of the magnificent seven. If luck is not on their side they find the top of the bin is locked down and they have to turn elsewhere for sustenance.

Despite the fact the one of the goats is armed one or two Ryeland’s push their luck trying to get a mouthful out of the buckets containing the goats breakfasts. Wincing from the pain of fresh puncture wounds the Ryeland’s regroup for one final assault as they catch sight of the hay being carried to replenish the empty hay holder in the stables. The taller ones have a genetic advantage here but pressure of numbers may cause a wad of hay to be dropped and they will then carry the tightly packed bundle of dried grass away in triumph and devour it enmasse like a pack of hyenas around carrion.

This doesn’t happen every morning, just most mornings.

Having exhausted all avenues of supplementing their breakfasts they amble off down the lane and plan their next raids or they find somewhere comfortable to sleep off their huge meal. Here they also have a choice of where to rest their bloated stomachs. Current favourites include the doorstep, the concrete step outside the stable, a dog bed put out for the goat, and yesterday one even managed to get onto the swinging chair and fall asleep on the soft cushions.
I shall have my revenge, this weekend we shear them.

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