There are said to be around 90 different breeds of sheep in the UK. From all these, when
we started keeping sheep five years ago, we chose Portland.
Portland are a very old breed and were likely already in the UK when the Romans invaded in AD 43. They take their name from the Isle of Portland, in the English Channel, where they continued to be raised until 1920 when the last few were sold and the breed almost became extinct. Luckily in the 1970’s, thanks to the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, the few remaining sheep were traced and a breeding programme established so that now, although still on the ‘At Risk’ register, there are approximately 2,500 Portlands in the UK.
Their environment on the Isle of Portland ensured that the breed remained small, hardy, and agile. They usually only produce one lamb. These were the attributes that attracted us to the breed as we live in the North Pennines of England, high up where the grazing is hilly and quite poor and, being two female shepherds and new to keeping sheep, wanted a breed that would be easy to handle and look after.
The fact that they are very attractive and produce beautiful wool and tasty meat also featured in the decision as did the wish to support and breed an ‘at risk’ sheep. The only problem was finding some as the majority of flocks were in the South of England.
We hadn’t had them too long before completely falling in love them. They soon became very tame and because we started with a small number we knew their names and were able to view them as individuals and note their characters. I have come across many people who believe that sheep are silly and unintelligent but this is not our experience. They are quick to recognise individuals and to learn routines. Ours come when the feed bucket is shaken and if they have moved between fields once before will often run ahead to the new field, remembering the way and anticipating the fresh grass. The especially friendly ones come over for fusses and scratches each morning.
They produce a beautiful fleece which is creamy white in colour and a joy to spin and knit with. Their fleece generally weigh around 2 kg (4.5 pounds), the staple length varies, with the books stating 6.5-10 cm but in my experience usually longer. It has good crimp and produces a nice bouncy yarn.
Some fleeces will be fine enough for use next to the skin but in my experience the fleece has a low ‘prickle factor’ anyway. I tested this with a hat I made from hand spun Portland and wore all winter without itching. The fleeces may be small compared with some modern breeds, but I have found most parts to be usable so there is very little waste. The fleece is easy to process and can be combed or carded and spun either worsted or woollen. It also takes dye very well although I particularly like its natural colour.
I mentioned before that ewes generally only have a single lamb. These can be born at any
time of the year although we keep our tup separated from the ewes so that lambing
happens during April when the weather is starting to improve. Lambs are foxy red when
they are born and gradually lighten to their adult colour of creamy white. They are lively
and playful and enjoy chasing each other around the field with leaps and jumps like playful
children. The ewes are good mothers and spring resounds with the calls of mums and lambs when they get separated.
Wool has a long history and is such an amazing material as well as being a renewable resource which will naturally decompose and return to enrich the earth once we have finished wearing it.
Keeping sheep and learning to spin has made me feel really connected to the land and to my heritage – to all my farming forbears who would also have cared for their sheep, clipped them and spun their wool to create warm clothing for their families.
If you would like to know more about the history of the breed there is more in depth information at the Portland Sheep Breeders Group website.