The Ruslin flock of Ryelands, established 88 years ago by the Wear family, is the oldest of its breed in the world.
Rebecca Jordan reports from their Somerset farm...
Over the past 88 years, the Ruslin flock of Ryelands has sustained its position at the top end of the showing line up and it continues to leave its mark in the auction ring, having been instrumental in ensuring this native breed maintains its popularity, with a current membership of 814 breeders.
Richard Wear, who turned 85 last month, and his wife Margaret deserve much credit for this.
At just 29 years old, Richard took over Rusland Farm, Butcombe, Somerset, when his father Percy died suddenly at 66 years old.
Prior to that, Richard’s father, one of 12, left the family’s quarrying business and 405-hectare (1,000- acre) farm of Romney sheep and Blue Albion cattle to take on the tenancy at Rusland in 1924. He came with 12 cows and three labourers.
Percy was able to buy the 41ha (102-acre) farm in 1941 for £3,000. This was split in half in 1950 between Richard and his brother, Frank.
Richard says: “Then, 20ha was a viable unit. We bought a further 36ha later.
“It is all semi-permanent pasture, but we did grow about 8ha (20 acres) of spring and winter barley and oats.
“The latter was the most profitable, as we grazed it in the early spring and then had the corn and straw for later.
“This was a region and type of ground traditionally suited to and populated by Hampshire Down or Dorset Down sheep.
“My father, however, did not get on with the Dorset Down so, in 1932, travelled to Hereford market, where the Ryelands had their annual show and sale, to look at the breed.
“He liked what he saw and bought 20 ewes for 100gns and the champion ram at 32gns, which was a lot of money then.”
At this point the Ryeland was at the zenith of its popularity. It was producing carcases at 17-18kg deadweight with half an inch of fat, which was what the consumer wanted.
By the time rationing stopped in 1954, Richard and his father were selling 32 rams a year as demand for small joints of lamb soared.
This native breed maintained its popularity until the continentals made their mark on the sheep industry in the early 1980s. At this point, the Wears were running 60 pedigree ewes, but Richard realised the breed needed to adapt if it was to hold its own.
“The market was by now looking for carcases which were 20kg deadweight with just a quarter inch of fat. No British Down breed can do that,” he says.
It just so happened Richard was invited to judge the breed at Melbourne Show in Australia. There, he gave champion to the ram which was the father of Ferrari, a ram whose semen was imported into the UK in 1989.
“I was very taken with Ferrari because he had tremendous length and was very alert,” says Richard.
“Unlike most of the sheep at that time, he held up his head which is very important for easy lambing.
“A sheep with a decent length of neck will have its chin level with its topline. You then know, if the rest of his conformation is correct, lambs will come out easily because those lambs will press on the cervix in the correct place and open up the ewe.
“The head should also be no more than three-quarters the width of its body for the same reason.”
In 1990 the Wears artificially inseminated 10 ewes to Ferrari and were lucky enough to return 18 lambs.
One of these, Ruslin Jay, was never beaten in the showring and stood inter-breed champion at Devon County Show as a shearling. Richard has retained females from these genetics ever since.
“British Ryelands were, on average, 28-30 inches long at this time, whereas Australian Ryelands were 32-34,”he says.
Richard judged at Melbourne again in 2006, but was also invited to New Zealand in 1984 and 1992 to judge at its Royal Show at Canterbury.
A ram bred by the Biggar Brothers, whose family are well known in the Scottish livestock breeding circles, caught his eye.
It was sold to Australia and in 1997 Richard secured semen from its grandson, Hallylulya Muscles.
“This ram was lower set, but it had a very good rear end which was something I felt the breed needed to improve if it was to hold its own,” says Richard.
The two sires are used on alternate years. Just four ewes are now artificially inseminated each year in the hope of breeding a good ram lamb. All this year’s show successes are credited to Muscles. Showing has long been an obsession for Richard.
In 1955, he judged the English Young Farmers’ Dairy National Championships and repeated the honour in 1958 for the beef sector.
In 1966, he trained and selected the English Young Farmer beef team. Until recently, when he retired from judging, he was a popular choice on the inter-breed sheep judging panel.
“We started winning with the Ryelands in 1963. When you get the hang of the job, it starts to get obsessive,” says Richard.
“Jack Bulmer once told me to look at all the champions and see what they are fed.”
This was obviously good advice, as the Wears went on to take reserve supreme champion with a pair of Ryeland ewe lambs at Smithfield in 1971.
These were sold for £20 each to a London butcher who regarded the prize card as the key to a successful Christmas trade in his shop.
Richard and Margaret also won the inter-breed pairs at the Royal Show in the late 1980s.
Rams have been sold to 13 different countries. At the breed society’s show and sale a ram lamb achieved 1,650gns four years ago to A. and C. Farms.
However, by his own admission, Richard’s greatest achievement is a shearling which achieved 1,000gns in 2011.
Over the years, management of the home flock has remained the same. Ewes lamb in February and shearlings in March.
They are out by day and have a mineral lick in front of them, as this farm suffers from copper deficiency which can lead to the locking up of other essential minerals and trace elements.
Ewes are only wormed at lambing, as Richard believes the drench can have a detrimental effect on the gut’s good bacteria and enzymes.
Chicory in the pasture acts as a natural anthelmintic.
Pre-lambing ewes are only offered hay and grass nuts. The latter are less fattening than conventional ewe nuts.
Lambs are creeped at 16 per cent protein and weaned at 16 weeks old.
“Down breeds are not great milkers and start to dry up after six weeks. However, we do average 1.5 lambs/ewe at lambing and 1.4 lambs/ewe at weaning,” says Richard.
For the past 25 years, Richard and Margaret have bought in 10-month old Aberdeen-Angus steers and heifers from their son, Andrew.
These would be finished outdoors off grass and hay at 26 months old at 280-320kg deadweight for heifers and 300-350kg deadweight for steers through the Waitrose scheme. Throughput has peaked at 100 cattle a year, but the Wears are back to 13 this year.
“I took a lamb wrong in the mouth to Sedgemoor a few weeks ago and was shocked to find it was the only British-sired sheep in the market,” says Richard.
“We have worked hard to keep the breed popular and improving it to meet market demand.
“From 1990 to 1995 I was chairman of the society. It was a difficult time when the coloured Ryeland was gaining in popularity and the society was keen to maintain the identity of the white Ryeland.
“In 2010, the Ryeland Flock Book Society gave the Coloured Ryeland equal status with the Ryeland and provided breeders with a designated committee within the society’s structure.
“The White Ryeland should have pink skin, a brown ear, dark hooves and there should not be continuous wool over its face – effectively there should be bare skin where the bridle goes on a horse.
“There should also be wool, back and front, below the knee and hock.”
With grandson Kyle now helping to show the sheep there is no doubt the Ruslin flock will continue to flourish for at least two more generations.
Richard and Margaret’s daughter, Brenda, also maintains an interest and is now a firm fixture on the breed’s judging panel.