The Belton flock of Lincoln Longwools is the largest in Europe and has many championship titles to its name. Chloe Palmer meets Michael and Julie Coney to find out more.
Once on the critical list of British native breeds, the Lincoln Longwool has been making an impressive recovery over the last three decades thanks to the dedication of a small band of breeders.
Michael and Julie Coney of Belton Grange near Grantham, own 110 of the 800 breeding Lincoln Longwool ewes in the country. Their flock now comprises six distinct genetic lines and it has been the culmination of almost 30 years work.
Formerly one of three brothers in a family partnership on a large mixed farm in Lincolnshire, Mr Coney decided he wanted to do something a little different after many years involvement in an arable enterprise with a flock of 700 breeding mules.
“The family farm was interesting from a commercial perspective but we felt we wanted to do something more specialised. We saw the Lincoln Longwool at the Lincolnshire Show and we were persuaded by a local shepherd, Harold Nobes, they would be right for us,” Mr Coney says.
Mr Nobes, the shepherd of the famous Watts flock of pedigree Lincoln Longwools proved to be a major influence in the establishment of the Belton flock.
“Much of our understanding goes back to Harold. He helped us to select our future breeding stock for many years. He was always keen to pass on his knowledge but he did not give away all his secrets,” Mr Coney says.
Finding and purchasing the ewes to make up the nucleus of the flock proved challenging as in 1987, Lincoln Longwools were still on the rare breed critical list.
“It took a lot of work to put the flock together because we were looking to buy larger numbers. Eventually, we bought 30 ewe lambs from eight flocks,” Mr Coney says.
Mr Coney admits to having little showing experience with sheep, although he had extensive flock management knowledge from his time spent running a large commercial flock.
“We did quite well quite quickly; we won third at the Lincolnshire Show in 1988 with a ewe lamb and I am grateful for the judge giving us some early encouragement.”
The first major victory came in 1992 when a yearling ewe in wool won the inter-breed championship at the Lincolnshire Show. The Coneys built on their success and have since won several more inter-breed championships.
In 1998, the family farming partnership was dissolved and the arable holding was divided. Mr Coney kept the Lincoln Longwool flock and his brother retained the Lincoln Red herd.
With the freedom to focus on the pedigree flock, Mr Coney decided to sell off some of the arable land to their neighbours at Belton House, the National Trust in 2005.
“We kept thirty hectares at home and entered the land into Higher Level Stewardship under the arable reversion option. At the same time, I decided to contract out all the arable farming and we were able to expand the flock.”
Pedigree numbers increased rapidly following the purchase of two flocks of Lincoln Longwools from friends in Kent and Lincolnshire who were retiring and numbers grew from 30 ewes in 2005 to 147 ewes in 2008.
The Coneys run the sheep as six separate flocks to maintain the six distinct genetic lines. Finding the right rams to use has proved challenging as there are still only 60 flocks of pedigree Lincoln Longwools and many number just one or two ewes.
AI has been used in the past but it did not prove successful:
“We have imported semen from Australia and have also tried live semen. We found the procedure problematical with conception rates of only 30 percent; better results might be achieved for later lambing but it did not work for our system.”
“We now put the rams in on 7 August and essentially we are using them as teasers because we find the ewes begin cycling approximately two weeks later. The biggest group of ewes lambs are born in late January which means we have enough grass by the time they are turned out.”
Lincoln Longwools are surprisingly fecund and lambing percentages of 165 percent are typical when lambing in March and 150 percent can be achieved with earlier lambing if feed blocks are used at tupping.
“We always have a few early lambs born at the beginning of January. We welcome these because the extra wool grown on older lambs is very noticeable when we are selecting for the show ring,” Mr Coney adds.
“For most breeds, the main considerations are conformation and type. For Lincoln Longwools, the quality and consistency of the wool is paramount both when selecting animals to show and as flock replacements.”
Mr Coney describes the desired wool for the breed as having a thicker, stronger fibre than that of longwool breeds such as the Wensleydale and it should have long, broad, even and distinct lustrous staples.
“Maintaining the wool in the right condition for showing is a challenge because we never wash or trim our sheep as this would remove all the lanolin. We have to keep our grazing short and free of thistles,” he says.
The shearing season is long, starting on the first of March with shearling tups and finishing with the show sheep in July. Mr Coney still shears all the sheep and says:
“The weight of wool clipped in one session from just 30 of our sheep would easily exceed the weight and value of fleeces from 100 mule ewes. We send most of the 1500kgs of wool we produce each year to the Wool Marketing Board but some is sold to hand spinners, weavers and specialist users manufacturing anything from dolls wigs to film props.
“Because of the internet, demand from Holland and Russia is developing for the very best quality long shearling fleece.”
Mr Coney is able to pick out ewes which will have the best wool at six months old and at seventeen months, ewe fleeces weigh up to 15kg and the two shear rams fleeces weigh 20kg.
Add to this the full grown weight of a ewe at 120kg and for a ram up to 160kg, and it is easy to see how the Lincoln Longwool weighs in as the UK’s largest native breed.
Mr Coney makes use of the latest software packages and digital weigh scales to record breeding information, individual weights at specific dates and movements.
He believes there is a role for data recording to improve the breed but he is concerned the popular genetic evaluation services would not suit the Belton flock where wool quality is of equal importance to growth rates.
“We use our own growth data analysis but feel a responsibility that we ought to be doing some live scanning on the ram lambs to reduce back fat levels as I do not want to select for over-fat sheep.”
Creating a future for the Lincoln Longwool breed is clearly high up the list of priorities for Michael and Julie Coney and they are guided by their desire to maintain genetic diversity for future breeders.
“We have decided to sell females from our flock because we believe it is the best way for us to support the breed at the current time. With a rare breed, it is very easy to saturate the market with rams and we want to preserve the genetic lines we have because as one of the largest flocks, we have to support the next generation of breeders.”
Mr Coney believes the breed needs new supporters and he hopes the farmers in the East Midlands will play a part.
“We are well supported by rare breed enthusiasts but the breed lacks support from the farming community. We need local farmers to have small flocks of Lincoln Longwools across the region but livestock is becoming less and less of a feature in this county.”
Although it is important to promote the attributes of the Lincoln Longwool, Mr Coney believes maintaining excellence in the breed is fundamental. He says:
“We can only make progress by producing a quality product as we will not be able to compete with the continental breeds as a meat sheep. Our efforts must be concentrated on producing a big, correct sheep but also a high quality fleece.”
The Lincoln Longwool is a dual purpose sheep (for meat and wool) and is the largest native breed in the UK. It is listed as category 4 ‘at risk’ on the Rare Breeds Survival Trust ‘watchlist’.
The breed was developed to carry a heavy fleece of strong, lustrous, lanolin-rich wool combined with a substantial mutton carcass providing both meat and tallow. They needed to be a robust breed as they were finished on the Lincolnshire marshes and then walked to London to be sold at market.
At the turn of the century Lincolns were in great demand at home and abroad and many were exported, particularly to South America, Australia and New Zealand, where they were used to improve and develop new breeds. Staggering sale prices were often achieved and the Riby Champion 2nd sold for 1450 guineas in 1906.
Now there are just 800 breeding ewes in 60 flocks across the UK. There are estimated to be 500 breeding ewes in New Zealand, 500 in Australia and 700 in North America.
The fleece of the Lincoln must be lustrous and strong with a thick fibre forming a wide staple as it hangs. The crimp and strength of the wool should be even throughout and not exhibit coarseness. The weight of the fleece will vary from 10kg to 20kg.
Traditionally the wool was used for worsted cloth for upholstery, wall hangings, overcoats and suit material. Lincoln wool is still found in these end uses because it has the beautiful lustre to give the sheen to the cloth.
As a shearling, rams are clipped on 1st March and in their first showing season will have a tight, curly fleece allowing the judge to accurately assess conformation. In their second season, rams have approximately 16 months growth of wool and so have the characteristic longwool appearance. Ewes are shown in the second year and are not sheared so have 17 months wool growth when shown.