As a member of the Kent Guild of Spinners, Dyers and Weavers, I did a spinning demonstration for Kent Wildlife Trust at their Queendown Warren Nature Reserve yesterday. It was a perfect day, lovely sunny weather, a beautiful setting and once we were set up, I was sat in a field under a gazebo spinning and watching the sheep. What could be better?
There were due to be a couple of sheep dog demonstrations during the day but the staff assured me the sheep would not be used for the demo as they aren’t used to being worked with a dog. Instead the sheep dog would drive a few ducks around the obstacle course.
Kent Wildlife Trust use Hebridean and Herdwick sheep for conservation grazing.
The black sheep on the left with horns is a Hebridean ewe, the dark lamb on the right is a Herdwick
A Herdwick ewe
Conservation grazing is where a hardy primitive breed of sheep, cattle or ponies are used to manage a landscape. In this case the Queendown Warren Reserve is chalk grassland. The sheep’s job is munch any scrub which might try to grow. Conservation grazing has its downside, the main concern being that the animals get enough food. The primitive breeds used are well adapted to living on poor grazing but in their home environment they would probably range over a mountain or two whereas with conservation grazing the animals are often fenced into a relatively small area, limiting their food supply. I was pleased to see these sheep had plenty of grass and were in good condition.
Meet the sheep
The Herdwick lambs were pure bred but the Hebridean ewes had been put to a Southdown ram. Yes, I know, I’m talking about Southdowns again. I think the breed is stalking me. Everywhere I turn I see a round woolly face looking at me! The Hebridean cross Southdown lambs were lovely and chunky, most of them were white with brown faces and white head wool.
Here is a pure Hebridean ewe with her Southdown cross lamb
The staff told me the Southdown nature has come through in the lambs. Southdowns are notoriously difficult to move, some people describe them as docile, I’m not sure that’s the word I would use. You can be jumping up and down waving your arms in the air and whooping and a Southdown will just stand there and look at you where a normal sheep would have had a panic attack and jumped out of the pen. The staff told me when they are moving the sheep the Hebridean ewes run off but their crossbred lambs stay put so the ewes have to come back for their lambs. When the Hebrideans had pure bred lambs the lambs would run with their mothers. The ewes must be puzzled by their strange offspring.
Anyway, I was in full flow describing some detail of the spinning process when I heard an unusual amount of baaing. I looked up and saw the sheep were charging up the hill shouting to each other. Then I saw a group of excited Herdwicks my side of the fence. No doubt all the baaing would translate as ‘Have you heard? The gate’s open. Let’s go next door girls!’ Sheep are flock animals, if one takes the lead the whole flock will follow. I really didn’t fancy spending the rest of the day chasing semi wild sheep around Kent.
The sheep flocking up the Warren
Salvation came in the shape of the sheep dog demonstrator. In the demonstration, the dog had moved a few ducks around a course with the trainer close by. Now the dog shot off out of sight over the brow of the hill while the trainer stayed where he was, controlling the dog with a whistle. He looked perfectly calm. I wondered if the dog could actually do the job, moving a bunch of large stubborn ewes is very different from moving ducks. Some sheep dogs are afraid of sheep. They just aren’t assertive enough. I’ve seen a single ewe chase a young sheep dog round and round a trailer.
However, after a few moments a tightly bunched group of Herdwicks appeared, heading in the right direction. The dog was well back from the sheep and working beautifully. ‘Let’s see if he can get them through the gate.’ I thought. But the bunch of runaways trotted straight through the gateway and the dog came streaking back tail wagging to a round of applause. An impressive impromptu demonstration.