Sheep. Inspirers of bad jokes, tender meat, delicious cheeses and extremely warm (yet temperature regulating) garments.
It appears that I don’t actually know all that much about sheep. I know a song about a black sheep, I can recognise a sheep from a cow and a lam leg from a lamb shoulder. However, when you get beyond the generic ‘sheep’ category it appears that there is a whole lot to learn.
I discovered this today at Masham Sheep Fair in North Yorkshire. The town square was full of live sheep in a variety of sizes, colours and with wildly different shaped horns. There were sheep that resembled bulldogs, hardy hill sheep, beautiful soft woolen beauties. Sheep with bandy legs and sheep with sturdy legs. Every covered space was abounding with spinning, weaving and knitting enthusiasts. There were great big bags rammed full of rare breed sheep fleeces. I felt compelled to buy them all with absolutely no actual use for any of them but common sense, ie my husband, prevailed.
However, the highlight for me was the chance to talk with a farmer about how he raises his sheep. I know that I need to really get to grips with the farming practices behind how our meat is produced in this country. I am convinced that there is a very strong link between the health of an animal and the health of those who eat the animal, and I would love both the animal and my family to be healthy. However, it just feels like such a massive topic and I have chosen instead to research things like salt which (actually quite mistakenly) appear to be much easier nuts to crack, as it were.
The farmer I spoke with was a chap from the Swaledale Mutton Company. He farms on the high dale near Leyburn so looks after (shepherds?) a hardy sheep called a Swaledale. They have beautiful curly horns and coarse, no nonsense fleeces. Apparently these ewes are a good Yorkshire lot who will practically self-lamb in the snow if they need to! Although the little lambs are kept on the tender lowland grasses, they subsequently spend most of their lives on the high dales. They have a mixed, varied diet that is based around grass, herbs and whatever grows in their area rather than animal pellets and a nibble of grass.
He sells these sheep at 2 years old which means (according to him) that they are full of flavour. I was surprised (although I really don’t know why!) that if I go to the supermarket and pick up lamb it really will be a little lamb rather than a grown sheep. Since the lambs will be valued by weight rather than any other redeeming quality to a middleman who will sell to a middleman who will sell to a supermarket, it makes financial sense to try to quickly boost the lambs weight by giving them high concentrate sheep pellets. No surprise that soybean meal will probably feature highly in their diet.
Currently I am no expert on sheep and their meat. However, since I have been looking for a good local supplier of grass fed lamb I may well give Swaledale Mutton a call (when I have space in my freezer). I like the fact that they are able to roam wild and are able to live to a more respectable age than supermarket lamb. I also like the fact that there would be a greater degree of traceability and accountability.
I’m sure that there are many great shepherds out there but I have no idea who or where. I am keen to learn, so watch this space……Where do you source your lamb from?