Ernie Sherwin has been showing Wensleydale sheep at the Great Yorkshire Show for almost 40 years. Angela Calvert went to meet him...
Ernie Sherwin has a long association with the Great Yorkshire Show, only ever having missed one year since 1967. But his family’s connection goes back even further with his father, Percy, awarded a gold medal for stockjudging, which included cattle, sheep and pigs, in 1927 when the show was held at Darlington.
Mr Sherwin’s first venture into showing there in his own right was in 1979 with a Wensleydale gimmer lamb given to him by his maternal grandfather, Len Fawell, before returning the following year to win the yearling ewe in full wool class as well as taking the reserve breed title, continuing both sides of the families showing tradition.
He says: “Both sides of the family have a long association with the show and showing stock throughout the north of England. My grandfather, Len, showed Wensleydales from his Kirby Hill flock from the 1930s. My father, Percy, and his father, Ernest also showed Mashams and Suffolks, as well as cattle and Shire horses."
Mr Sherwin moved to Grange Farm, Nosterfield, with his parents and twin sister, Helen, in 1968. He now operates his rural chartered surveying and auctioneering business from there and runs 40 commercial ewes alongside 10 pedigree Wensleydale ewes.
His Nosterfield flock of pedigree Wensleydales was established in 1984 by a ewe, also given to him by Mr Fawell, whose bloodlines still have great influence.
In 2012, one descendant, Lulu, was breed champion at the Great Yorkshire Show as a yearling in full wool, before going on to be inter-breed longwool champion and then overall inter-breed supreme in addition to taking the champion of champions wool on the hoof title.
Lulu was bought from its breeder, Mary Smith, Ayrshire, as a lamb and was by Nosterfield Winalot, one the breed’s most influencial sires and bred by Mr Sherwin.
In 2015, Lulu’s daughter, also took the breed championship for Mr Sherwin and in 2017 its twin sons were first and second in the shearling ram class, with one going on to the take the breed championship. Their sire was Nosterfield Le Tour Roger, which had also taken the breed championship for Ernie as a two-shear ram in 2016 and is still one of the flock’s stock rams.
Famous for their unique fleece, Wensleydales, were originally used as a crossing breed as well as to produce meat and wool. They were extremely popular from the turn of the century through to the 1940s when they began to lose out to the Teeswater, which in turn lost favour to the Bluefaced Leicester in producing Mules.
This was not helped by the introduction of continental breeds and a declining wool price.
By the 1980s Wensleydales were becoming very scarce and Mr Sherwin says it is only down to a few breed stalwarts, including the Elliott family, Dr Agnes Winter and Brian Holgate that the breed kept going.
However, over the last 10 years the breed has enjoyed something of a resurgence, mainly because of demand for its lustre wool, although it is still classed as a rare and minority breed by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.
Mr Sherwin says: “Wensleydales are easy lambing, very prolific and have plenty of milk. They also produce very flavoursome meat, but they are a slow maturing breed, which is why I do not really like showing lambs as they need to be pushed to be ready to show, whereas really they are better given time to grow naturally.
“Their real value is in the wool but it is important not to neglect conformation when focusing on producing a good fleece. They are big sheep and should have a leg at each corner with width over the shoulder and right through the carcase to the loin. When breeding, it is a question of achieving a balance between a good fleece and a good carcase.
“Producing a quality sheep is down to using the right bloodlines combined with good management and feeding. The condition of the sheep will impact on the quality of the wool, but the best sheep will have a naturally better fleece which separates by itself and needs less attention.
“One of the drawbacks of Wensleydales is they are difficult to keep clean, so it is important to keep them on short, clean grass and to keep moving them onto fresh ground without any bare soil patches which will dirty the fleece.”
Mr Sherwin clips all his own sheep, sometimes by machine but more often by hand, particularly those which are to be shown as this is not as harsh and some cover can be left on.
There is now unprecedented demand for both Wensleydale sheep and wool, with enquires from as far away as the US, Canada, Sweden and Germany. Most of the wool is sold privately for spinning and crafting but this year for the first time wool from the lustre breeds, Wensleydale and Teeswater, tops the British Wool Marketing Board prices at £4.62/kg.
Mr Sherwin explains: “An average first clip raw fleece is 5-6kg and 3-4kg after that and usually then declines year-on-year. However, it is now viable to keep any tup lambs not good enough for breeding to take a clip of wool from them and this is something more breeders are now doing.”
In spite of the increased demand Mr Sherwin has concerns for the future of the breed. He says: “The gene pool is limited which is why, even though I only have a relatively small number of ewes to use several rams each year, I have taken semen from Roger for use in the future.
“It is also important we try to encourage young people to get involved with the breed and I would like to see some initiatives from the breed society to do this. John McHardy, of the Endrigs flock, has already given a trophy for young people with this in mind.”
Mr Sherwin will be taking a team of seven to the Great Yorkshire this year. He says: “Showing takes up a lot of time. The planning starts months in advance and the serious preparation of the sheep begins about two weeks beforehand.
"Then in the case of the Yorkshire it is almost a week away from home which is a big commitment. It is also becoming increasingly expensive, but it is a shop window both for the breed and for individual breeders.
“It is also very social and an opportunity to meet up with friends from all around the country.”