Border Leicesters of the Doulton Flock
Following on from Sue Blacker’s post about her work with small producers through The Natural Fibre Company and Blacker Yarns, today we meet Ellie Stokeld, from North Yorkshire. Ellie is owner of 300 Border Leicester sheep and recently worked with Blacker to produce the Doulton Flock Border Leicester yarn. Here she tells us a bit about why the sheep are so important and what it is like to be a first-time yarn producer.
Hi Ellie, tell us about yourself and all about your farm?
Hi Louise, I’ve been farming for around 30 years now, starting purely by accident after I had a car accident. I had always ridden horses, competitively and for pleasure and had bought land many years ago, adding to it over the years, to keep my horses on. Unfortunately I was told that I should not ride and I put the horse out to grass and wondered what I should do. I’ve always been mad keen on land management and The Blue Cross had given me a an old mule ewe and her two Texel cross lambs- Polly, Bubbles and Squeak, and they kept some of the grass in order. The rest I had had let out to adjoining farmers.
I decided that I would like to have some pedigree sheep and perhaps show them. I had a good look round and read a lot about different sheep and was persuaded to go for Kerry Hills and a meeting was set up for me with a breeder at Peterborough, at the East of England Show. The minute I saw them I knew they were not for me. Too prissy! I went to sit outside a watch the show and there was the most magnificent big Border Leicester ram, in full wool, standing placidly beside his owner, who I immediately got into conversation with. Two months later he bought two lambs for me at Lanark Sale and I was away! I named them Martha and Minnie, after Corrie characters!
I also still have my OAP horses and I also keep ex-battery hens and rare breed hens.
Can you us about the Doulton Flock of Border Leicester sheep and what was it about the breed that won you over?
Why Border Leicesters? To see them is to love them! Big proud, strong sheep with erect ears, superb fleece and such personalities!
They are people friendly. I believe that you what you put into something is what you get out, no matter what. I treat my sheep with kindness and talk to them when I am amongst them. They were all named after Coronation Street characters and they all answered to their names. After Martha and Minnie came Dennis, Mavis, Maud, Natalie, Gail, Raquel and on it went. Such amazing characters. Gentle, docile and very loving. Gradually over the years I became more and more interested in sheep and my flock grew from two to 300, the largest flock in the UK.
I breed shearling rams to put onto other breeds of sheep to enhance them and produce longer, leaner ewe lambs. They then grow onto to become breeding ewes. None of my sheep ever go for slaughter. I find that, once I get a ram customer, they come back to me time and time again and, when they leave me with a ram who has a name, what a difference it makes to their thinking of that animal. He becomes a someone not just the tup.
As time went on I learned to show and I learnt to win. I started to show in fleece classes, at such big shows as Great Yorkshire, Norfolk, East of England, Lincoln and started to really learn about fleece and wool. My sheep got the championships three times. I learned how to spot a really good fleece, how to prepare them, how to assess them and eventually became a judge of, not just the sheep, but of wool to. I learned that to produce good fleece you have to feed the sheep or the fleece is quite often weak in the staple.
I don’t think a lot of farmers think about the fleece. To them it is something to get sheared and rid of. There is very little incentive to do anything with it other than send it to the Wool Board. When you buy rams for pedigree flocks there is a saying, which is very true, “you buy rams in pieces”. This means that you buy a ram with a good skin, or a ram with a good length, or a ram with good eyes. Not one ram ever has all of these assets. I have bred specifically for good skins as well as everything else which is why my sheep produce such good fleeces.
You have recently produced your first yarns from your fleeces – tell us about that
I met up with a couple of spinners at Masham, who I have been in contact with for a couple of years, and we had a really good talk about my sheep, my fleeces and what was I going to do in the future. At the end of that conversation I had the name and telephone of Sue Blacker at Blacker Yarns. I contacted her that next week and we talked and emailed for quite a while and came up with a plan between us for my yarn. The next February I sent 44 kgs down to Blacker and the rest is history! They did an absolutely fantastic job and the yarn is selling well! So much so that we have put aside hand-picked fleeces for next year for another batch of yarn.
It must be difficult sometimes to think beyond the flocks and the hard work you do, to imagine the wool being knit with and enjoyed as knitted items. You mentioned it there yourself that many farmers don’t think much about their fleeces. Has producing your yarn given you insight into this?
I will be totally honest with you and tell you I did not realise how exciting the whole project would be. I have been in a state of excitement since we sent off the fleeces last year. To be able to visualise yarn made from my lovely sheep’s fleeces and then to actually see the finished result has been amazing and has changed my outlook completely. People’s reactions to the forthcoming yarn and the excitement THEY felt which they shared with me on the Ravelry group – The Doulton Flock – when they had received the orders they had placed with Blacker was out of this world. When they then posted pictures of what they had produced with the yarn from my lovelies! I can’t really begin to tell you how I felt.
I am very proud to be able to produce wool from the Border Leicester sheep. The Border Leicester is on the Rare Breeds list now . It is a very versatile sheep and we need to promote it and it’s uses as much as we can. I intend to keep on doing just that.
Thank you so much, Ellie, for giving us an insight into the work you do and those very smiley, friendly sheep!
Border Leicester yarn from the Doulton Flock is available directly from Ellie’s Etsy shop. You can reach Ellie either on Ravelry on the group – The Doulton Flock, or on email@example.com or 07860363742. The yarn is available in a 4ply and a DK weight and cost £12 for 100g skein. Ellie has also kindly donated a skein of yarn for a WOVEMBER prize this year too. Thanks so much to Ellie and the Doulton Flock.