We sheared the flock on September 30, then packed off to the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival for two days in the cold wind and rain. The weather was miserable and attendance was down, but we still managed to make enough sales and contacts to have a worthwhile event. I have a few ideas for advertising the Festival next year that I think would help draw both Vermonters and out-of-state visitors. The great thing about the show being held at the Tunbridge fairgrounds is that it’s close to us and also a more intimate venue that is easier for visitors to navigate.
Two weeks later we put in an appearance at a new event that is in its second year. The Christmas in October Shoppe is sponsored by the Tunbridge Women’s Group, and aims to raise money to support the restoration of historic buildings in Tunbridge. This year, a portion of the proceeds also went to flood relief for victims of Irene, so we were happy to participate as a new vendor. We saw a lot of our friends and neighbors but didn’t experience much traffic from tourists, although the event took place during peak foliage season. Hopefully with a little more advertising the Shoppe will become a fixture on the area’s fall calendar of must-see events.
Our fourth and final fiber event will be the Green Mountain Fiber Festival, hosted by White River Yarns at the Hotel Coolidge in White River Junction. If you haven’t had a chance to see us at one of the previous shows, please come by on the weekend of November 19-20. We’ll have new products this year including knit kits for some fun felted items that make great holiday gifts.
As if all of these events weren’t enough to keep us busy, we also had the challenge of locating and bringing in a new breeding ram. Because Navajo-Churro sheep are relatively rare in our area, many of the small farms share bloodlines between their flocks. After a great deal of searching we happened upon a ram owned by Betty Hauger at Log Cabin Lamb & Wool in Winterport, Maine. The one-day road trip to pick him up was exhausting, but we’re thrilled to welcome Tunbridge as the new flock sire. His deep brown color and large horns were exactly what we were looking for this year, as we try to introduce new color patterns into the flock and maintain a number of horned ewes. Lambs will be due in mid-March of 2012.
While we’re waiting for the lambs to come, I’ll be experimenting with dyeing and hand-spinning various fibers. We’re also expecting a fresh batch of roving from Hampton Fiber Mill in Richmond in the next month or so. And if you are interested in grease fleece now is the time to contact us – we have many different colors to choose from.
With pouring rain outside on a spring day it’s time for another infrequent farm update. After the fall shows and shearing were completed the farm settled in for winter. We had already decided not to breed this year, given the economy and a lack of interest in breeding stock, so there was no ram to bring in, no breeding program to manage. While we missed the excitement of breeding season, in fact this turned out to be a good decision for us for a number of reasons. The price of hay increased this year, and the extreme cold temperatures we had in December and January meant that the flock was eating more than usual to burn calories and keep warm. In addition, the two lambs that we decided to keep for our own breeding program will have a full year to mature before their first pregnancy. And, not having to purchase and manage a ram also meant we could focus on selling a few lambs of our own.
Next we were contacted by some established Churro breeders near St. Johnsbury, who were looking for a lighter-colored ram to introduce some new genetics into their flock. They bought Chaleco, the reverse badger ram from Manta. I’m looking forward to seeing photos of their lambs, which should be due in the next few weeks. Then in January we were contacted by a woman in Maine, also in search of a ram lamb. Fortunately we still had Louis, a fine black ram lamb with great fleece and amazing horns, just like his sire. It’s great to see some of our first lambs going to good homes.
Fortunately, we got a recommendation on a slaughterhouse from a friend of ours who raises pigs: Brault’s Market in Troy, Vermont. It’s about a 2-hour drive from our house, but the peace of mind that comes when working with a reputable, ethical, and family-owned operation are more than worth the extra travel time. I called them back in October expecting to have to wait a couple of months for an appointment, but was surprised that they were already booked into February. So we took the first available date and marked it on our calendar.
Even after death we have tried to honor their gift of life by using as much as we can. We’ll eat the organ meats rather than throw them out. And as it turns out, waiting the extra time for an appointment was beneficial. It allowed the lambs to grow a little larger, and since the butcher charges a flat rate per head this meant more meat for our money. It also meant that the lambs had more time to re-grow their wool after October shearing, and since we elected to save the hides for tanning, this will make for a much more luxurious sheepskin with a nice thick coat of wool. The hides are in the barn, salted and drying out before I send them to the tannery, and our freezer is full of delicious, healthy meat.
This winter has been an interesting chapter, providing important learning experiences for us. Spring is time for another shearing, and warmer weather means I can get back outside to skirt fleeces and dye some yarn. I just hope we can make it through mud season without another huge snowstorm.
Despite falling asleep rather easily, I had a hard night — and harder morning — after all those pints last night. When we left the room and dragged ourselves to the dining room for breakfast I had difficulty even listening to Pat suggest a full Irish breakfast, so I opted for scrambled eggs, cereal and lots of coffee. I was so hungover, I had to take my time with breakfast, but managed to get through it without incident.
Back in the room we were still wondering what to do with a week’s worth of laundry and very little in the way of clean clothes, so while Sarah showered I took a walk down the high street to see what options might be available. I poked my head in the chemists shop and was directed to a shop a few blocks away. After managing to pass it the first time I found the shop and spoke with the woman who runs it. She was glad to help, but her turn around time would be too late for us, so I thanked her and walked back to Skelly’s. Dave had said the night before that we could do our laundry at his brother’s place when we visited, so now it was looking like that was going to be our only option.
When I got back I asked Pat about wifi access because we had noticed at breakfast that there was a SSID named “Skelly’s”. He said we should be able to access it, but we hadn’t been able to. Nice (and trusting) guy that he is, Pat led us to the office where the access point was located and left me to fiddle around with things. After looking over the settings I decide to power cycle the access point and then we were finally able to connect.
Once back in the room we talked about the plan to return to London the next day, and decided that based on the news reports we should consider taking a train and ferry rather than risking our flight from Dublin being canceled. Sarah did some research and booked our train and ferry tickets and I spoke with Skelly’s manager, Peter, about the possibility of hiring a car to get us to the train station early tomorrow morning. Peter said he would speak with their brother James who drives the taxi (naturally!) and make the arrangements to have the car there at half five. We are very impressed with Skelly’s!
Dave and Anne met us out front with two cars. We hopped in the car with Anne and met Dave at the market to pick up the ingredients to make faux meat sauce and pasta. While there we hunted for fragrance-free laundry soap in case Dave’s brother and his partner didn’t have any on hand. Then we followed Dave to drop off the car he had borrowed and made our way to his brother’s place.
We meandered through the snowy back roads before arriving at Ken (Dave’s brother), and his partner PB’s, farm just as the sun was setting. What a beautiful spot they have! Before the sun went down completely we all wandered around outside enjoying the way the last light of day shown on the hoarfrost before heading in to start making supper, and finally do some laundry!
While PB and Anne made supper, Dave, Sarah and I chatted and noshed on some cured meats from Trealy Farm that James gave us, and delicious beers from Untapped Brewing we bought in Usk. Ken was finishing up some chores but joined us shortly before the meal was served.
After supper, I helped with the washing up, before we all settled in the sitting room around the Stanley wood stove to talk. Occasionally I would pop out to check on the laundry, which was is in the garage. The telly was on and when the weather reports came on we’d all stop to see what the latest was on the Dublin airport. It was starting to look like we made the right decision to book the ferry.
It was getting late and we had to get up very early if we were going to be ready for James the next morning, so we grabbed our clean clothes, thanked our wonderful hosts and all piled into the car. Once back at Skelly’s we all hugged and said our goodbyes. What a wonderful visit it has been, but tomorrow we head back to England.
Having gone to bed relatively early, we awoke refreshed to a beautiful snow-covered day on Saturday morning, ready for another adventure. Knowing we’d be on the move for most of the day, we headed down to the Novotel’s breakfast buffet, which is much higher quality and greater selection than the type of “continental breakfast” one finds in US hotels: there’s cereal, fruit, juices, pastries and fresh breads, plus hot items including all of the makings of a Full English. It’s quite a good deal.
After our meal we walked to the train station, which was easy to find now that we had started to get our bearings around Cardiff and the sun was shining. We took the train down to Abergavenny, the closest rail stop to Usk, then hopped into a taxi for the second leg of our trip. Farmlands set along rolling hills sparked in the sunlight and I was reminded very much of home.
The taxi driver didn’t know exactly where the farmer’s market took place, but we knew that it was set up “across from the prison,” so easy enough to find. We arrived to find a few shoppers milling about outside, and immediately noticed some of the vendors, selling whole game birds, fresh fish, and locally brewed beer. Inside we found yarn, cheeses, local wine, handmade chocolates, vegetables, and in the middle of the market, our friend James from Trealy Farm with a crowd sampling his traditional charcuterie: cured sausages and air-dried ham. James seemed to be the most popular stall in the market. We said hi briefly but didn’t want to get in the way of commerce, so stepped aside for a cup of hot tea.
After the warmup, I decided to check out the two yarn vendors there, while Rick browsed some of the other booths. I couldn’t decide which yarns to buy and went to look for Rick, who had left the building. Then I remembered the beer vendor setup outside. Sure enough Rick was there talking with the brewer of Untapped Brewing Company who was interested in the popularity of the homebrew scene back in the States. He had a nice selection of different styles available, and we selected a stout and a porter. Then, after securing our purchases in James’ booth, we decided to check out the local castle.
Usk Castle is a ruins dating from 1170 CE, but still functions as a residence! To reach the site we crossed through the village passing small shops and quaint houses, and saying hello to people in the street. As we came to the castle grounds we had to walk up dirt drive, and met a young man who smiled and greeted us. At first we thought he might be a castle caretaker or a guide, but as we crested the little hill we found that he was there selling Christmas trees, and apparently had thought we might be customers.
We didn’t see any other grounds staff and asked if we could tour the castle on our own. The young man seemed to think it would be alright, so we clambered up some terraced gardens and made our way into the keep, which was still well intact. We then circled around the walls and eventually found a gate leading into the main courtyard. A small signpost on the gate warned that there were sheep grazing in the castle and asked visitors to close the gate behind them, which we did. As we entered, we found some geese to our right and another signpost explaining that they were on sentry duty and warning us to stay clear — knowing geese to be quite territorial, we also heeded these instructions.
We didn’t see the sheep at first, but immediately noticed the view beyond the walls and towers of the castle. In a corner of the grounds we spotted some stairs leading up to the top of a wall. I had some trepidation about walking on a ruin but the wall had been reinforced with steel bars and there was a handrail, so Rick forged ahead and I eventually followed. The views of the mountains and the village were incredible! At the other end of the wall was another tower, and Rick found sheep droppings on the stairs. He descended the tower and eventually ended up back in the courtyard below my position on the wall. I had him take my picture, and then we switched and I took his. Finally, we spotted two sheep on the other side of the courtyard, eating shrubs and reaching up to nibble on some evergreen trees. They were nonchalant about our presence so we took a few pictures as we made our way around the circular courtyard to check out more of the view.
We stayed in the castle as long as we could, enjoying the quiet, the snow, the views, the sound of sheep munching gently. Eventually it was time to return to the market, so we headed back down the hill, passing one of the castle manager’s buildings on our way to the road. He had some dressed pheasants hanging on a line outside the door, strung next to tools, coats, boots.
Arriving back at the market, we found many of the vendors clearing up. After James finished with his last customer, we started helping him organize his wares and pack up the truck. Apparently it hadn’t been as much of a sale day as he’d hoped, so there was more meat to pack. We sorted, organized, and began stacking bins and baskets of sausages and dried hams. Through careful planning and puzzling we eventually managed to stack every last piece in the van and squeeze in after it. James then drove us back to the farm.
Trealy Farm is situated on the side of a hill in Monmouthshire, and as we approached the road curved so that we could see most of the property from a distance. After a few minutes we turned onto a snowy dirt road which was fortunately flat as the meat van didn’t have much traction. We passed a neighboring dairy farm and eventually parked at the bottom of the drive. Since it was cold out, James elected to leave the meat in the van, and we unpacked just the essentials — James’ cell phone charger, the cash box, a tray of veggies and a box of desserts traded at the market — and carried them up to the house. Ruth joined us, and we were invited in for tea and a warm-up by the massive hearth in the living room.
Once warm, Ruth suggested a walk to see the land and the animals up close. I was feeling a little tired and feverish but didn’t want to miss out. Fortunately there were extra wellies since our shoes were already wet and we were about to head out into damp snow. Bundled again, the four of us set out along with Ruth’s new sheep dog, Sid. We made our way through a series of pastures, each one fenced and bordered by hedgerows. The views across the sparkling valley were spectacular!
In each pasture there was a different group of animals. First there was a flock of sheep with a few different breeds including Manx. Next we made our way over to a herd of boer goats and met the friendliest buck I’ve ever seen. He loved getting scratches from James. We moved through this pasture into the next, which held some Welsh Mountain sheep, the primary breed that Ruth raises both at Trealy Farm and her family farm in northern Wales.
This particular group consisted of ewe lambs that had been selected for breeding. Because they were young, Ruth had been using them as a practice group for her dog Sid to work. Apparently young dogs like Sid have to build up their sheep-herding confidence, so practicing on a group of nervous young sheep is preferable to a group of stubborn matron ewes who might not respond as easily. Ruth was happy to give us a demonstration of Sid’s abilities as she had only had him at the farm for a couple of weeks. Sid did an excellent job – first gathering the flock and bringing them to Ruth, then moving them to the other side of the pasture. At one point the flock broke into two groups, but Sid was patient and eventually got them back together and into the correct spot. It was the first time that Rick and I had seen a sheep dog work outside of a staged demonstration and it was very impressive to watch.
By this time dusk was rolling in, so we began making our way back to the main barns. We saw some kids that were being kept under shelter for warmth, along with a couple of beef cattle. Then James wanted to show us his wooly pigs, a rare breed that he uses for the charcuterie business. Unfortunately the pigs were reluctant to come over when James called, and weren’t enticed even by grain, so we climbed the fence and went over to the pigs. It was dark out, but you could see how hairy these pigs were. They also were smaller than the commercial breeds we were accustomed to seeing. I was a little wary as they snuffled my boots (pigs do bite!) but stuck around long enough to feel their thick, wiry coats.
We retired once again to the living room hearth to warm up, and were invited to stay for dinner. James cooked while Rick and I got to spend a little more time with Ruth. Of course Rick had met both of them when he visited in 2001, but I wanted to learn more about Ruth’s connection with sheep. Turns out her family has been in the farming business for generations, and much of that time has been with sheep. She told us that her father had passed away the previous year and left her a large farm with 2,000 head of sheep in northern Wales, which she hired someone to manage. Rick and I half-joked when we volunteered to help manage the farm. We talked breeds and shepherding for a while, and I mentioned that knitting had become a trendy hobby in the US. It was very interesting to note the similarities between the breeds that I’d seen at Trealy farm and those that I was more familiar with in the states. The Manx reminded me of the Navajo-Churro sheep that Rick and I raise, and the Welsh Mountain were small, like Shetlands.
All this time amazing smells were wafting in from the kitchen, and Ruth traded places at one point to finish the roasted vegetables. We then sat down to an amazing meal of a French-style cassoulet with a new type of salt-cured sausage that James had been experimenting with for the business, plus fresh cabbage and potatoes from the market. There was a side of roast turnips and more potatoes with herbs. The meal was amazing! After dinner we talked about the local- organic- and slow-food movements and compared progress in Europe and the US. James had attended a Slow Food North America meeting and was impressed at the innovative marketing and products that some US producers were using to sell their products. We talked about the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model of direct sales from farmer to customer, the farm-to-plate initiative in Vermont, slaughterhouse and meat inspection regulations and our friend Walter Jeffries who is building his own meat processing facility on a micro-scale. James and Ruth seemed pleased as we were to find others who shared an interest in local, sustainable farming and were more engaged with their efforts than the average city visitors.
As the conversation drifted into beer-making, James broke out a selection of desserts that he’d also scored at the market, including French tarts, cheesecake, and other delights. Rick discussed the homebrew movement in Vermont and the renewed interest in being able to grow hops and grains locally for small and hobby beer production. It was a wonderfully engaging and relaxing evening and we were reluctant to leave, but knew we had to get motivated before we missed the last train back to Cardiff. Before we left Ruth gave us a Welsh Christmas card.
James, Rick and I bundled into the farm’s ATV and headed down the drive. At the bottom, James retrieved a couple of packages of meats for us to try, then we got into the family car and James drove us to the train station. Trying to read the schedule was a bit confusing but with the help of another passenger we confirmed that a train headed to Cardiff would be along in a few minutes. It was about 10:00 pm and a few more passengers arrived on the platform, all of them dressed up for a night out in the big city. Rick and I couldn’t purchase tickets via the kiosk without chip-and-pin credit cards, so we boarded the train planning to pay cash for our journey. We rode along and kept expecting a conductor to pass through, but arrived at our stop without seeing one. We then tried to purchase an exit fare but the office was closed. Seeing that the exit gates were open, we figured we had made our best effort to pay for the journey and walked back to our hotel, full of awesome food and memories.
- Order any supplies you may need, such as fleece bags, vaccines, and syringes.
- Lock the sheep in their holding pen inside the shelter or barn so they stay dry. Depending on the forecast, this may mean putting the sheep inside the day before shearing to make sure they have time to dry off if the weather has been wet.
- Select a comfortable space for the shearer to work, and be sure to clean it thoroughly. Make sure it is close to the holding pen, secure, well lit, dry, and has easy access to electricity if your shearer uses electric shears.
- Have help available – at least one person to catch sheep and bring each one to the shearer, one person to gather the fleeces, and one floater to open and close gates, take photos, and sweep up between each animal.
Shearing Notes and Etiquette:Offer food and drink to your helpers and the shearer. Organize your flock and ask the shearer if they have a preference of the order for rams and ewes. If you need to take photos, let your shearer know this so that you can coordinate your movements for an easy work flow. Work with the shearer at their pace. Don’t hover, but do be ready to take the sheep as soon as it has been shorn. (It only takes 3-4 minutes to shear a sheep with electric blades.) Also be ready to help out if a sheep is thrashing or if they slip away before shearing is complete. The shearer will first discard the matted, dirty belly wool. Wait until the shearer has completed the entire clip before stepping in to gather the fleece (pulling on the fleece while it is still attached can cause the sheep’s skin to stretch and risks cuts to both the sheep and the shearer). The shearer can hold the sheep in an immobilized position after the clip for easy vaccinations. Have the fleece bag ready, and know which sheep you will catch next. To make the sheep more comfortable, we return each one to the holding pen after it is shorn. This works particularly well with a small flock. For larger numbers of sheep, it may be more practical to turn the sheep out as they are shorn, though keep in mind that the last sheep left in the holding pen may be quite nervous while it is left alone. Finally, thank your shearer and tip them, especially if they have driven some distance to come to your farm, or if they have come over for just a few animals.