It has been wet and windy today in Cumbria, but the Rough Fell Sheep I visited today over at Jane and Brian Knowles’ farm were in fine voice, despite the inclement conditions.
Jane and Brian Knowles breed Rough Fell Sheep, and Jane is the breed association secretary so she keeps the flock book and knows the breed inside out. She kindly spoke with me about the excellent mothering skills of the Rough Fell ewes; of what the farm is like at lambing time; and of the difficulties of selling both the meat (nobody’s heard of it) and the wool (which has a reputation for being rough) from this superb animal. We also discussed the manly nature of Rough Fell tups, and the relaxed, laid-back characteristics of the breed.
Jane also showed me this amazing suit. It is made from cloth produced in Scotland from fleece sent up for processing by another Cumbrian grower of Rough Fell wool, in the 1960s. The fabric is fine and surprisingly supple and soft. I feel that the spinners, dyers and weaver involved in this creation knew how to get the very best out of the fleeces of Rough Fell sheep, worsted-spinning the long, creamy locks into fine yarns and then weaving these into a dense, luxurious fabric. My photos don’t really do it justice. It is a thing of beauty and Jane brings the suit to events to show people what can be done with Rough Fell fleece, if one has the right tools and skills.
I have gathered in my short time here that Rough Fell Wool once fetched a very high price because it was used for stuffing top quality mattresses in Italy. I would describe the fibres as being long, creamy, strong and kempy, with good loft and a robust, tensile strength which would not easily be compressed or go limp. Deb Robson writes that the mattress usage makes perfect sense when you feel this fibre, which she describes as being both durable and resilient.
Jane and Brian Knowles win lots of trophies and prizes with their Rough Fells, and my favourite of these is the “Wool on the Hoof” award which they won for the fourth year running in 2011 in the “best of the Mountain breeds” category. I really like the idea of a competition which celebrates the potential of wool when it is still on a living creature, where the connection between textiles, animals and places can be still keenly seen:
Sheep are actually very quiet at this time of year; the anxious cries of ewes to lambs and lambs to ewes are not a feature at this point in the shepherding calendar, and being essentially PREY in the bigger scheme of things, it does not serve a sheep’s survival chances for it to loudly and continually announce its presence in the landscape. Thus most flocks are huddled together for warmth on the Fells around now, grazing in large, shuffly groups and quietly waiting out the winter before the lambing begins in a few weeks’ time. However all the farmers I’ve met so far have been very obliging and helpful re: my project, and have schemed up ways of inducing their animals to bleat for me. It seems the best way of getting a sheep to make a noise is to approach it bearing some kind of edible fare, and to then wave this about so that it gets indignant about not being able to get at it. These baas were recorded on Jane and Brian’s farm and were mostly uttered by a large and handsome chap who ambled right up to the gate where we stood and politely but insistently protested that life would be very much better if the bucket of food we were holding could please be repositioned inside the gate that he might reach some of the tasty contents.
Since its baas were very low in the overall scheme of sheep-baas-I-have-known, I nicknamed this sheep “BAARRY WHITE.” I was very taken with his large nose (a very important breed characteristic) and with his big, soulful eyes.
I haven’t been able to buy any Rough Fell yarn with which to cover some of the speakers in Hûrd, but the breed will be sonically represented in the scuffling of these big strong animals as they pile through a Hogg hole in a drystone wall; in the sounds of their hooves clattering through the mud; in their baas and bleats. Also, today I recorded the sound of the wind whipping cruel and cold through the Fells on which these sheep survive so well, on account of their amazing coats.
Brian says his sheep can tell his Landrover from other Landrovers and that the distinctive sound of its engine brings the Rough Fells rushing straight to the gate when he does his rounds, and Jane says that these days the wool cheque barely pays for the shearers to take the wool off the sheeps’ backs. And that is a truth connected with the breed which should be heard along with its baas, I reckon.