Originally published in The Shepherd magazine. Written by Margie Smith, PA
Have you ever seen a “glow” and thought it must be an angel? Have you ever seen that glow in a pasture? Well, one sunny day in 2007, while viewing Nancy Starkey’s flock of Border Leicesters, there amidst the 20 or more yearlings she had, was one that absolutely glowed. It took my breath away then and it still does now.
After seeing this wonderful yearling, I knew I had to add her to my flock. She wasn’t a Border Leicester but her fleece was so shimmery, that I knew I wanted it in my genetics. This ewe was named Gwen and she was the start of my love affair with Bluefaced Leicesters!
Since 2007, I’ve added plenty more to my flock – many with the Beechtree farm name in their backgrounds, some with Bolton, some with Potosi, some with Wit’s End and a couple with Fox Hollow. It took a conglomeration of BFL sheep to get where Marlindale farm is today. I began with trying to create that shimmery lock in all my sheep. The farms mentioned above, all had a bit of what I was looking for – basically, to create a mirror image of Gwen with thicker fleece. In 2016, I felt I had arrived at that place – all my flock shimmered in the sun! Most of my flock now, are my own breeding – but it took several years to get there! So, the next step was to increase the meatiness of the body. Although most of my lambs and culled ewes don’t go for meat, I still wanted to create a dual purpose sheep – with a shimmery fleece being top priority.
You may want to know why fleece and why a shimmer? Well, if I had only wanted a meat sheep, I could go back to raising Suffolk or Hampshire sheep – the two breeds I began with in 1982. By 1992, I was disappointed that I was literally throwing my fleeces in the dump – there was no purpose for them and I didn’t know anyone who wanted them. In 1996, I changed from the Suffolk/Hampshire crosses to Montadales – a dual purpose breed. They weren’t great either in fleece or meat, so I tried Border Leicesters. I loved the breed, but again their fleeces weren’t quite what I was looking for. Then I saw Gwen and the rest is history! Well, maybe not quite. I still had my Border Leicesters – so I crossed them. What we produced was wonderful – the lambs and fleeces sold very well. However, over the next couple of years, I saw the fleeces of the BFL in the show ring diminishing. What was being shown, by my standards for fleece, was disappointing. I did my fair share of complaining – so much so, that even I couldn’t stand myself. So, what did I do? I sold the crossbreds and went entirely to BFL – either I had to put up or shut up, so I decided to create what I thought should be the best BFL there was. So, why put fleece as my top priority – because the meat breeds don’t have quality fleeces, and the BFL breeders had gotten away from the shimmery fleece. That is why!
I met with many handspinners, knitters and weavers. I asked questions, went to see mills of yarns , went to see what the BFL yarn looked like when it had been worked into a finished project. In all I saw, the yarns that kept my attention were the ones that shimmered. Some of them were from my flock, some were not – but all were BFL! I knew that shimmer was an eye-catcher, but so was the length of lock as well as the crimp and strength of each fiber. I knew what I needed to work towards.
Other than importing ewes and rams from select flocks, how do I get the quality Marlindale has now? Many factors go into this- obviously genetics is first. Next is nutrition – I’ve worked hard to have quality grazing with only 2.5 acres of land. That has been a many year trial and error! We also purchase grain from a local mill, so I know exactly what is in the mix and the mill owner works hard to help me maintain high quality feed. We try to provide medium quality grass hay, but sometimes that has been difficult since we don’t grow our own – which is why a high quality feed mix was so important to us. Finally, we keep the sheep covered with modified Rocky’s Sheep Sheets (we use his sheets and add a turtleneck to them) – pretty much all year long. It is a labor of love – a 250 ram or wether does not like having their hind feet raised to be put through leg straps! The sheep sheets get rotated and changed as the sheep grow and/or their fleeces grow. We shear in early spring or late winter – just prior to lambing. The bred ewes will not be covered until their lambs are about a month old – that way we don’t lose lambs from getting caught in leg straps (another disaster we once had and don’t want to repeat).
I can’t complete this article without also saying I’ve had wonderful mentors along the journey. One of my first mentors, was this young woman who had only been shearing professionally for about a year – you may know her – Emily Chamelin! Emily saw my crossbreds of Border Leicester to Bluefaced Leicester and loved the crimp, the shimmer and the length. She encouraged me to show the fleeces at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival – we’ve been doing it ever since! Next, Nancy Starkey – I can’t tell you how many hours she’s spent on the phone with me over genetics and health questions. There have been many others since Nancy and Emily including the Frederick County Sheep Breeders’ Association. Kelly Cole (a meat producer) was always there to help with disease control and the Scrapies program. I’ve worked with my vet (we actually had a couple of cases one year of death due to copper deficiency!), and the state vet – keeping my sheep in the federal programs.
So, it hasn’t been ALL about fleece – but…… fleece is where it started and where I hope to continue as long as I’m producing BFL sheep!