The stocky little Welsh farmer’s wife who I was trying to buy a Border Collie from looked unconvinced of my abilities to be a good Collie owner. I told her the puppy would be going over to Normandy and we would be buying more sheep. She would be in Border Collie Heaven and the sheep would be in Paradise. I recounted the story of our first forays into sheep-keeping and how my husband had decided on which sheep to buy.
My sister had asked what to buy us for Christmas.
‘Ted’s latest Cunning Plan is keeping sheep,” I said, “about which he knows zilch, nil and nothing, so buy him the Ministry of Agriculture booklets on sheep.”
When he had suitably digested the contents of these, over a few glasses of red in front of the log fire, I asked, “What sheep have you decided to buy, honey?”
“Suffolk,” he said, and I awaited the research data ‘X kilos of meat per animal plus X amount of wool of good long staple etc etc’, a Brian Archer* style dialogue. ‘
“Because they are pretty,” the businessman said.
The Farmer’s wife beckoned me over to her shed and said “Well, if it’s pretty sheep you want….” and there they were, a rare breed of small black and white sheep called Balwen, looking like Border Collies. They are marked with a white stripe on the head (hence the name), have four white feet and long tails with a white tip.
They are a rare breed because nearly all of them disappeared during an exceptionally hard winter (1947) in the Welsh mountains and the 2,000 or so which exist now have been bred from the handful that remained after that winter.
I had to wait a year for them because of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease but managed finally to import a few. They are exceptionally easy to keep as they do not seem to get the new grass diarrhoea that other sheep get, so I don’t have to dock their tails to keep them clean. Their nails do not need as much cutting so they don’t get foot rot.
Balwen generally have only one lamb which the ewes produce without fuss. I don’t have to pen the ewe with the lamb to make her accept the baby or draw off the first milk. Any redundant males I gave to a local pet zoo together with a female or two who were not wanted here. In addition, they are really pretty!
I managed to keep the bloodlines far apart enough for a couple of years then I had to go back to the zoo and get King Brian back. He was one of twins but his brother, along with a ewe and lamb, who had stayed here, were killed by a fox so I had no ram of his bloodline. He was huge. After a horrific journey back home, during which King Brian kept trying to rear up over the front seat of the 2CV despite being attached and held in a half Nelson, we loosed him on the females.
Although he had no horns – he lost them in a fight with a Hungarian ram in the zoo — he lowered his head, then ran like a moose with his head stretched out and dewlaps wobbling. We renamed him Brian the Bully. I don’t think the ladies liked him much. I couldn’t face another journey with him so I had to get the zoo owner to take him back in his special trailer van.
Having saved the Balwen from extinction, my next mission was to use the wool. Fleeces in France are mainly sold to mattress makers (yes, they still exist here) or furniture restorers who use fleeces instead of horse hair. It is surely better than flammable foam. But black fleeces are not saleable in France so are generally burnt.
In the more ecological south of France, people used fleeces for roof insulation. The idea was good but lacked something in the preparation. When the sun struck the roofs, the fleeces gave off a really heavy odour of mutton which is extremely unpleasant. They also fill with moths and other creepy crawlies because they need to be treated with permethrin.
Being brought up in post-war Wales, I couldn’t bear the idea of waste so I decided to learn to weave and spin. I went on various spinning and weaving courses in the UK and Brittany, quickly discovering that I was ‘nulle’ – rubbish. I spent the next couple of years trying to find a woolen mill that would prepare the wool and maybe spin or felt it.
As all the independent mills in France seem to have closed, I finally found a mill in Cornwall. They spun my wool for a huge price, but it turns out that this wool is useless for knitting as it is too rough so I am going to have to make a rug out of it. It’s on my list — at the bottom — as I still haven’t finished the coat I started two winters ago from the softer Black Welsh Mountain wool.
I wanted to have the skins cured to make black sheepskin rugs but the abattoir tells me that they are not allowed to give me back the skin. This means I would have to slaughter and skin the beast myself and I would have to learn to cure it because I can’t find anyone who does this in our mainly agricultural county.
Last year, I went back to the UK to buy another ram (Tudor) and managed to sell my 30 kilos of wool to the British Wool Board in Devon for a couple of dollars. Presently, I have another 20 kilos of wool in my shed that is worth nothing. I shall have to do what everyone around here does — burn it all.
No local butcher wants the meat either — the creatures are too small. People have got used to huge legs of lamb fattened up to feed ten. My little lambs have sweet, delicate meat on little legs for four guests. Prince Charles eats them but not Sarko and Co.*
Balwen breeders in the UK seem to be able to do all these things. Even the wool gets bought for roof insulation properly made to high-tech standards. Some high functionary in France must have pronounced on sheep-keeping and everyone goes along and no one seems to question.
I am already a bit of a nuisance because I objected to the size of the ear tags we use for identification. The little lambs looked as if they were ready for a Caribbean Carnival with ear rings down to their knees. I don’t know what I am going to do next year when I have to electronically tag them.
Here am I trying to put the world to rights, trying to be ecological but European Civil Servants (unelected by the populace), French functionaries and Sarko are all like Rhett Butler — they really don’t give a damn.
*The Archers is a Radio 4 serial, originally started to give out farming details after the War in story form but it has become extremely popular and has been on the radio for forty years or more.
*The French nickname for President Sarkozy.
All photos © Julia McLean
Mother Balwen and lamb
Tudor the Tup
The Racing of the lambs
Scan of Balwen Society Logo