The Hodge April 21: Sheep Husbandry, Woven into Cirencester’s History

Country Matters

By The Hodge

People have been prodigiously farming sheep in the area to the degree Cirencester has plenty of sheep related place names.

‘Bonnie Prince Charlie was the only man ever to be named after three sheepdogs.’

Jonathan Ross

April, providing the weather be fair, is when we will see the lambs from this year’s crop abound in the meadows. Most lambs, and certainly those born in this area, are the conventional types, born in early spring and ready for market come the autumn. There are a few specialist breeds – notably those of Dorsetshire origins – which will breed earlier and supply the lucrative Easter market.

Today, almost all lambs in the southern half of the country are born in covered barns and reared on the ewe’s milk until the weather is fair enough for them to venture outside and start extending their diet with the fresh new grass. In decades past it was a different matter and the sheep would stay outside and come lambing time, the shepherd’s hut would be towed down to the field concerned and the stockman would spend a month or more on his own supervising the lambing – mainly at night – and keeping as best he could the foxes and crows at bay. Doubtless there were many more losses of newborns then than today.

The sheep produces from 1 – 5 lambs at a time, most usually 2 or 3, once a year. There used to be two crops taken; the meat, and the wool from shearing every year. For most breeds, shearing still needs to be done annually for welfare reasons even though prices paid are lower than the cost of shearing. So nowadays, there is only one profitable crop.

Lambing Season

Historically, we used to eat mutton from mature sheep but with the advent of refrigeration, we find that the market has changed and that lamb – from animals less than a year old – is the staple, supplied from British farms for much of the year and supplemented by stocks of chilled or frozen lamb from the Antipodes, mainly from December to Easter. The Prince of Wales has championed a return to mutton eating with some success at least through specialist independent butchers, and the stronger flavour is something to cherish in winter casseroles and stews. It also provides a better market for older stock, (rather than just supplying the pet food industry), and decreases our import reliance on foreign lamb.

The Cotswolds were, of course, the centre of the mediaeval woollen industry, being the ideal environment for sheep in an era when wool was highly sought after and didn’t have to compete with cotton and by-products of the oil industry. Processing created industries around Wotton-under-Edge, Stroud and Bristol, among others, with much of the produce of the sheep’s back being exported to Europe and the USA. The very term ‘Cotswold’ relates to sheep as the ‘Cot’ is an animal shelter, (specifically sheep in this part of the world), and ‘wold’ being and old term for rolling hills. And there is a specific breed called the Cotswold, said to be descended from sheep brought to the Cirencester region by the Romans. This is a large, longwool breed, much treasured for its valuable fleece but is sadly among our rare breeds due to the poor market for sheep’s wool today.

So, when you are taking your exercise in the countryside, pause and enjoy the gambolling lambs in the field, watched over by their anxious ewes. And please, whatever else you do, keep your dog or dogs on a lead whenever you are in the proximity of sheep. It is the natural tendency of every member of the wolf family to chase sheep and apart from being attacked by dogs, simply the stress of being chased by them can kill and any dog being seen to chase sheep can legally be shot by the farmer, so protect the sheep and protect your pet by keeping them on a lead.

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