On rams

About a year ago, I was either organising or packing for a stay at Julia Desch’s farm in Sussex. During my time there I met up with Kate, researched this and learned about Tupping – or, less prosaically put – the art of putting the rams to the ewes for breeding.

I have an interview of Julia talking about her rams and their different characteristics, and she talks about how they are masterful and pushy and dominant and how Wensleydale rams will actually fight to the death if they are left too close together. I watched her attaching paint blocks to the bellies of a couple of rams before putting them to the ewes so she could see who had been with whom. And I learned that 4 fences must be between a ram and a ewe that a shepherd DOESN’T want him to mate with, as if there are fewer fences, he will find a way through them! Julia has a lovely silver-grey ram called grey owl, who you can see on her flickr site here.

Julia also told me of Robert Bakewell and his role in changing our approach to sheep-breeding in the 1700s. Bakewell is of particular interest to Julia, because his breeding methods dramatically altered the way in which sheep breeds were developed and resulted in the Dishley Ram, who in later generations passed his genes on to Bluecap, the sire of the Wensleydale Sheep Breed.

Robert Bakewell was around from 1725 – 1795 and improved the quality of sheep through selective breeding. Separating ewes from rams and organising mating according to desired characteristics, he was able to improve both the meat and wool on several breeds. He also hired out his rams to farmers who wished to improve the quality of their flocks and kept detailed records of which combinations had resulted in the best quality animals being produced. His most famous ram is probably the Dishley Ram, pictured over at The New Dishley Society website, here.

The Dishley Ram was a type of Leicester (known as Dishley Leicester.) In 1839, many generations after this breed was developed, it was crossed with a (now extinct) Teeswater Muggs, resulting in the birth of Bluecap, (named for his extremely dark skin) the sire of the entire Wensleydale breed. You can read more about this, if interested, on the Wikibreedia website.

I was reminded of Robert Dishley, the famed Dishley Ram and Bluecap when it came up in the news this year that a ram-lamb named Deveronvale Perfection sold at auction for £231,000. The sheep sold for this staggering sum was a Texel breed and the previous most expensive sheep sold in the UK was also a Texel, known as Tophill Joe. This kind of money can only be spent on sheep when the expense can be recouped via stud fees. Tophill Joe sired over a £1,000,000 worth of lambs and the hopes for Deveronvale Perfection are equally high. Texels were introduced to the UK in the 1970s for their lean meat carcass, but the system of hiring and siring really goes back to Bakewell I think and his approach to improving stock through selective breeding methods. I do not know very much about the Texel breed but I think that it is mainly farmed for the meat market; it would be great to learn from any handspinners or people in the know whether or not the fleeces of these predicted £1,000,000 worth of future lambs will be used for anything. It is my suspicion that they will most likely not be making it to a yarn store near you at any point in the future and I think I am right in saying that the quality of fleece was a much more pertinent and lucrative concern in Bakewell’s day than it is for today’s commercial sheep-breeders.

But there are several fantastic sheep breeders around for whom fibre quality is definitely still a very high priority. Julia is a sheep-breeder whose attention during tupping season seems to be firmly focussed around the health of her animals and the quality of their fleeces. And my favourite article in the Twist Collective magazine was Barbara Parry’s beautiful piece entitled The Ram is Half the Sweater. Unlike the non-endangered Texel breed, the Wensleydale is a rare breed and the sheep that Tom Davies breeds in London’s city farms – notably the Whitefaced Woodlands and the Oxford Downs – are even rarer. The Vauxhall City Spinners who reside on Vauxhall City Farm work with the fleeces of these animals to get the best effects from the wool they are producing.

Here are two very handsome whitefaced woodland rams behaving in a surprisingly companiable way. I saw these at Mudchute Farm.

…and here are two Oxford Downs, also at Mudchute city farm.

Another Ram who I have met in the last year and admired for his handsome face and lovely, dark, open fleece is this one. This ram is a badger-faced Romney and he lives on Roger’s Farm, beside the yarn-spinning operation that is Diamond Fibres.

These are all very handsome animals, however it wasn’t until I was reading Tim Clutton-Brock’s book on Meerkats that I remembered that I was indeed struck when I met them all by the impressive size of their manparts. According to Clutton-Brock, ‘the relative size of the balls of males in different mammals is related to the risk that females will mate with several males within the same day or two.’ To emphasise his point, he rhetorically asks in the next paragraph ‘why do rams have such enormous balls?’ and answers, ‘because ewes commonly mate with multiple partners.’ Apparently large balls make more sperm, and a longer penis will obviously go further up the ‘reproductive tract’ of the female. He is quick to point out, however, that his study-animal of choice, the Meerkat, is most definitely not ‘poorly endowed.’ I am glad for this explanation of manly parts in animals and have a newfound respect for the masculine prowess of rams.

Also, that four-fences rule is now starting to make a lot more sense.

Finally, there is a great song called ‘The Derby Ram’ which you can hear on Youtube here and which testifies to the great folk hero status of legendary stud rams!

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