Lincoln Longwools are a passion for Louise and Ian Fairburn, and they are determined to safeguard the future of the breed.
When Louise Fairburn moved to Risby Grange, near Walesby, in Lincolnshire in 2001 for a more rural lifestyle she found herself with a surplus of grass on her smallholding and the obvious solution was to buy some sheep to keep it in order. Little did she know it was to be life changing.
Louise met Ian, who was to become her husband, soon after she moved to Lincolnshire when he came to put a farm track into the property and together they began a search for a sheep breed to suit them. After seeing some Lincoln Longwools in Louth market they had concerns about their size and manageability so contacted the Lincoln Longwool Sheep Breeders’ Association who gave them reassurance that the breed would be ideal for them.
This led to a visit to the breed association sale at Heckington Show. Louise says: “The property was a big renovation project so we did not have a lot of money for sheep but set out with £600 to buy as many Lincoln Longwools as possible. “That is not the advice I would give anyone now – I would say buy fewer better quality sheep.
“We finished up buying six ewes and a tup lamb, which were not the best but produced nine lambs for us the following year.”
As the flock gradually expanded Mr Fairburn became keen to go showing.
Mrs Fairburn says: “Initially, I just wanted the sheep to keep at home and manage the grass, but Ian was really keen to take them to a show. I finally agreed to go to the last show of the season, Heckington, just to keep him happy, with the intention of never going to another one.
“But after standing at the bottom of the line, my competitive streak kicked in. The judge said there was nothing wrong with our lambs but they were far too small because we did not lamb until April, so I decided if we were going to show we had to do it properly and set about learning all I could.
“Fellow competitors were really helpful, particularly Maurice Parker, who has since sadly passed away and Michael and Julie Coney, who have become very good friends.”
Showing has now become a major part of their lives and as the quality of their stock improved so did the show results. In 2008 they had their first win at Lincolnshire Show followed by the breed championship the following year, something which has been repeated many times.
Mrs Fairburn says their most satisfying achievements in the show ring have been taking the reserve inter-breed championship at Royal Three Counties in 2009 and winning the longwool championship at the Great Yorkshire Show with Risby Countess, a yearling ewe in wool.
She says: “We always struggle against meat breeds in inter-breed championships as judges do tend to favour them, so the Three Counties was a great result.
“The standard of longwool sheep at the Great Yorkshire is so high with so many breeds there, so winning the championship was a very proud moment. We have won the breed championship there nine consecutive times and are really disappointed there is no show this year as we were hoping to make it 10 in a row.”
The flock now stands at 60 ewes plus followers. Ewes lamb in January inside but are turned out as soon as possible, weather permitting, and stay outside for the remainder of the time, even during show season.
Most females are kept as replacements with the aim of constantly improving the genetics of the flock and the Fairburns try to breed their own rams, only occasionally buying in new bloodlines.
Any lambs not considered suitable for breeding and any cull ewes are slaughtered locally at Browns of Lincoln and sold to nearby Sunny Side Up Farm Shop.
Mr Fairburn says: “Lincoln Longwools are a dual purpose breed not just bred for their wool and the quality of the lamb easily matches that of pure meat breeds, but is it is just slower growing and takes longer to get to weight.
“It is even better when sold as mutton as it has so much more flavour but in spite of campaigns to promote it, it no longer seems very popular.”
Sheep earmarked for showing are usually identified at an early age and the show team is made up of around 12-14.
Mrs Fairburn explains: “We have an A and a B team because as the fleece is such a major factor it would be difficult to manage a sheep through the whole show season. It is a big commitment – the sheep and their fleeces need to be managed 365 days of the year which includes managing the grass so it does not get too long, keeping on top of weeds and hedges so that fleeces stay clean and do not get damaged and contaminated.
“We pick sheep for the early shows such as Newark and then others for the later shows, like the Great Yorkshire. We do not do anything with the fleeces until a week or so before the show and the sheep stay outside, unless it is raining, in which case we do bring them in, as the main thing is not to get the fleece wet.”
Rams and some females are clipped in March with those which are to be shown in full wool clipped later in the year after they have been shown.
“It takes a long time to understand wool,” says Mrs Fairburn. “And although people can give guidance, it really comes from hands on experience.
“The aim is to breed sheep with fleeces with a clean lifting staple, which is fairly greasy and has around three crimps to the inch. Judges will be looking at the whole fleece from the front, where most of the wool is, right through to the back.
“An average Lincoln Longwool fleece will weigh around 8kg, but at Heckington Show there is a heaviest fleece competition, which can be in excess of 40kg.
“It concerns me that managing wool is a lost skill and the current price does not give anyone the incentive to do so, although, fleece from longwool sheep are worth more than most. We can sell shearling fleeces to countries such as Holland and Russia for about £50 each but the rest of the wool just goes to the Wool Board and is still worth very little.”
With a population of around 700 breeding ewes the Lincoln Longwool has remained ‘vulnerable’ in category 3 of the latest Rare Breeds Survival Trust watch list and as chairman of the Lincoln Longwool Sheep Breeders Association, Mrs Fairburn is working hard to promote the breed.
She says: “It is the rarest native breed in the UK and the majority of the breed are in Lincolnshire which is not good if there was a disease outbreak, although they are fairly widely dispersed in a lot of small flocks which is a good thing.
Risby Grange is situated on the Viking Way attracting a lot of walkers past the farm and Mr and Mrs Fairburn have set up a ‘sheep shed’ close to it, where there is information about the breed and wool and the opportunity to buy wool and associated sheep products and gifts using an honesty box.
Mrs Fairburn says: “We try to really encourage new members to the Association and give them as much help as we can, like people did for us when we first started and also run workshops for members. We currently have about 100 members, although only about half have their own flocks.
“The Lincoln Longwool is an ideal breed for smallholders, although they are big sheep they are easy to manage.
“All longwool breeds have different types of wool as they were bred for different purposes, but it is vitally important that we do not lose the genetic codes for these breeds – we have to keep them going.”
Earlier this year the Rare Breeds Survival Trust launched a five-year conservation programme to reverse the decline of the Longwool sheep breeds native to the UK.
In the latest RBST Watchlist, published in April 2020, six of the nine native UK Longwool sheep breeds were classified as ‘vulnerable’ or ‘at risk’.
While Greyface Dartmoors and Border Leicesters have seen positive growth in their numbers, other breeds such as Lincoln Longwool and Leicester Longwool have declined in number. There were just 251 Lincoln Longwool breeding females registered in 2019.
As part of the new conservation programme, RBST will work with breed societies to increase the diversity within each breed, making the Longwools more resilient. The programme will work to limit inbreeding in each of the Longwool breeds through bespoke breeding programmes and employ cutting-edge conservation techniques and technology to safeguard each of the breeds for the next generations.
The Love a Longwool campaign will also improve the breeds’ chances of survival by promoting their uses for fibre, meat and conservation grazing, which encourages biodiversity and the regeneration of habitats.
The nine Longwool sheep breeds are Border Leicester, Cotswold, Devon and Cornwall Longwool, Greyface Dartmoor, Leicester Longwool, Lincoln Longwool, Teeswater, Wensleydale and Whiteface Dartmoor.