Paula Wolton on Growing Wool

Following on from this afternoon’s post which featured pictures of Shetland rams at the auction mart, we travel nearly 900 miles South, to Dartmoor, to meet with Paula Wolton. Paula is a shepherd on Dartmoor and keeps a small flock of Whiteface Dartmoor sheep. We have heard that “The Ram is Half the Sweater“, and in an amazing report on the viability of Organic Welsh Wool textile production that will feature on WOVEMBER later this month, Juliet Morris writes:

As the basic characteristics of a fleece are defined by genetics, it follows that the choice of ram exerts a powerful influence on the quality of the farm’s wool. The starting point to improvement can be as simple as choosing a terminal sire from a breed that, naturally, brings a good fleece: Bluefaced Leicester and Suffolk are obvious choices. Fleece quality also varies between individuals so, even between rams of the same breed, distinctions can be made on the basis of a ram’s wool

However what is it like to choose a ram? What is the experience of going to the auction house and assessing which of the animals in front of you will be the one which gives your flock (and its wool) the desired characteristics? This wonderful post from Paula gives some sense of that, and was originally published on her own blog. All images and text © Paula Wolton and used with her kind permission.

Early in the morning we arrive, Olly and I, at the vast sheep shed in Exeter market – it’s the day of the Whiteface Dartmoor Annual Show and Sale. Hustle, bustle, noise and racket reverberate and echo around the enormous open-sided building. Pick-ups, land rovers, trailers, boxes and lorries rev-rev and reverse peep-peep up to unloading bays where they relinquish their restless consignments; the racket of hooves clanging on metal, the clamour of continual calling, wool shimmer-glistens and steams in the early morning light. With twitching ear and heaving bodies sheep pour down the metal ramps like waterfalls of milk and gather in agitated frothing pools; the animals’ backs are stippled with stripes of vibrant colour, a bizarre rainbow indicating different flocks. With whistles and calls ‘sheppp…shep-shep-shep-shep’ flocks are ushered dexterously through a maze of gates and walkways into designated pens where owners deftly sort them into groups.

People and sheep, sheep and people; mingle and mix, dawdle and dally, hurry and scurry. There’s a face you recognise – then there’s another – and another and another; a wave from the lines, a tap on the back, a shout across a pen…greetings, introductions, questions:

‘How you been then?’

‘Long time, no see. Given up? Still got some hav’ee?’

‘Seen anything you like? A’ter ewes? No? Ahh, ram!’

‘Not a lot about this year’

‘Prices? Well…now…got me there. I don’t know. What you think, eh? You tell me!’

‘Who’s this Paula? No! Never! He were just a nipper backalong weren’t he?’

‘Ram is it? Well then….’

‘Interested? Look at his mouth…I mean…look maid. Just look! Best bloody mouth I’ve ever seen, I tell you!’

‘Na, you don’t want to take no notice of that! Rubbish, they were pink. Granfer’s flock were. Yes. Every god-damn one…pink.’

We move from pen to pen. We look. We study the form. We feel the shoulder, the back, the tail, the ear; look at the mouth, lift the feet. We look.

There are some splendid rams and many we can’t buy. The gene-pool is small so we have to choose carefully.
‘The trick is to find something you like, really like and are drawn to.’ I say to Olly ‘Something with the ‘x’ factor. Something special. Something inexplicable. Then you do the checks…and try NOT to kid yourself when it isn’t right!’

At last we find our rams. And it’s show time. The classes are large, the judging serious. One of our rams wins; this we know will raise the price.

We need a strategy. The rams we’ve picked out after hours of deliberation are numbers 8 and 9, and these will be sold near the beginning of the auction; this could be in our favour as auctions are notoriously slow to get going. But nine was a winning ram so he could sell for a lot of money. We like him, but we like eight too. A plan is settled upon. I shall bid for eight; I have my ceiling… and I have a chance to bid for nine if I lose him. If I lose both, heaven forbid, there’s another that would suit us, lot 35… but he has just won the champion… he could be pricey, though he’s older and the punters may not go for him. It’s a chance. But then an auction is always a chance.

We take our place around the ring. Lot 1 – not sold, lot 2, lot 3 – prices rising. Lot 4 just £55. Lot 5, 6, 7 hit higher figures and then we’re on, it’s our lad… The bidding starts, already much higher than previous lots. I wait, just as the hammer goes down I raise my finger, I’m in! Back-forth, back-forth, back-forth I bid up in twos, back-forth, back-forth… yes, yes! I’ve got him! The hammer is going, going down… no, no! Someone puts in a bid… we steel ourselves against each other, a game of vicious ping-pong, faster and faster, the tension around the ring crackles, back-forth, back-forth… I’m almost at my limit, I’m going to lose him, I can see my opponent, he’s a serious sheep man. Suddenly the bid’s with me, my opponent looks down, shakes his – he’s out – the auctioneer works the floor.

‘C’mon, c’mon you’ll lose him. Fine ram. Won’t get finer. The bid’s in the front… I’ll take two… anybody? One? One? Yes? Ladies? Gentleman? A ram in a million. Look at him. Generations of breeding. What’s that Sir? Over three hundred and fifty years of breeding I’m informed. Never see finer. I’ll take your bid… you there sir?… madam? Yes… one from the side there?’ the seconds tick, tick, tick, interminably. My heart jumps and beats in my neck, my mouth cotton wool dry, I look down, holding my breath, waiting, waiting for the hammer. BANG! I jump ‘The bid’s in the front… Paula Wolton, he’s yours!’

sam-the-ram-full-res-2-6-no

sam-the-ram-full-res-3-6-no

I got him!

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This entry was posted by Felicity Ford.

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