The Pennell family had a successful show season last year, with the Great Yorkshire Show one of the highlights.
Ten years ago Anna Pennell knew nothing about sheep. How times have changed, with last year seeing her take the inter-breed and reserve inter-breed sheep titles at two of the major shows of the season.
In 2008 the family moved from Lincolnshire to Redworth in Co Durham to a 40-hectare (100-acre) farm to accommodate their Dales ponies but, as a result they found themselves with surplus grass and acquired some sheep as Anna’s mother Julie explains.
She says: “We have always loved this part of the world and as Dales ponies are our passion it made sense to move nearer to where they originate from, but with the increased acreage we needed something to graze alongside the ponies.
“We have always liked native and rare breeds and I was familiar with Lincoln Longwools so we started with them.”
The first Lincoln Longwools were bought from Martyn Robinson, Yaddlethorpe, followed by more from the Elliott family, Hexham.
These were soon joined by three Wensleydale ewes from breed society secretary Barbara Metcalfe, who lived nearby.
Anna says: “Wensleydales are local to this area and they do well here. Plus, there are quite a lot of breeders around here so there are classes at shows and it is easier to source rams. So we started to build up Wensleydale numbers although we still have a few Lincoln Longwools and Teeswaters.”
It was a steep learning curve but Anna soon became involved with and developed a love of the sheep.
She now splits her time between them and the ponies, along with her role as secretary of the Wensleydale Longwool Sheep Breeders’ Association and running her business making bespoke leather goods such as bridles and cattle halters.
She says: “We have always been very competitive and we were used to showing the ponies at the highest level so it was inevitable that we started showing the sheep and it is now a big part of what we do.
“Sheep exhibitors are so friendly and welcoming. We obviously all want to win and are competitive once in the ring, but outside everyone helps each other and are very supportive of each other.”
Although their Wensleydales and Teeswaters have been tremendously successful in the showring, it is another breed entirely which has given the family their biggest, if somewhat unexpected wins.
In 2017 at Royal Norfolk Show, Anna saw some Clun Forest sheep which she really liked and went on to buy two ewe lambs from Del Knowles’ Wrotham flock which she named Sharon and Nicole.
She says: “The Clun Forests were so different to any other sheep we had and need a completely different preparation. Trimming and dressing the sheep is a new art for me and a lot of hard work but I am learning all the time and enjoying the challenge.”
The new additions joined the 2018 show team and Sharon proved to be something of a star, taking the any other native breed championships at Northumberland and North Yorkshire County shows before standing reserve champion to her sire at Royal Norfolk.
Next stop was the Great Yorkshire, always the highlight of the showing calendar for the Pennell family, where Sharon took the any other down breed championship before going on to win the shortwool/lowland breed inter-breed championship.
It then stood reserve in the overall inter-breed championship giving Anna her best result with any breed at the show to date.
But this was just a preliminary for what was to come at the next show, the Royal Welsh, where Anna was competing for the first time.
It was the first time Sharon had been in a section specific to Clun Forests, but it took the breed and then shortwool championship before going on to be crowned overall sheep inter-breed champion, the first occasion the breed had taken the top accolade at the show.
Anna says: “Sharon’s successes have been so surreal as it was so unexpected. There was more pressure at the Welsh because after the Yorkshire we had realised just how good she was. Even so, it was quite overwhelming, but everyone was so kind and pleased for us.”
So impressed have the Pennells been with the Clun Forests, apart from their showring success, that they have bought more ewes and last year bought a ram lamb, which is by a former Royal Welsh champion, from Mike Eckley’s Court Llacca flock.
Sharon produced twin gimmer lambs this spring and has now retired from the showring and will be flushed this year.
Anna says: “The Cluns are so easy to manage and such good mothers. We have a small flock of Mules which we put to the Texel to produce commercial fat lambs, but we are thinking of replacing these with Cluns as this produces a good cross and we think they will be easier to manage than the Mules.”
The Cluns have not yet outnumbered the Wensleydales, however, and the family are committed to the breed.
Anna says: “Although Wensleydales are still a rare breed, Class 4 which is ‘at risk’, there seems to be an increasing interest in them and we are seeing new members joining the society each year.
“Some of this is down to a real resurgence in the demand for their wool particularly from spinners and weavers who want the provenance of British wool and native breeds in particular.
“British Wool now pays a top price of £6/kg for Wensleydale wool, although as the breed has rare breed status, producers can apply for an exemption from selling to them, so there is a large private market.
“A fleece can be worth as much as £100-£120 so it is viable to keep wethers just for their fleece and this is giving the breed a real boost.
“We could easily sell our wool five or six times over but it usually goes to American dealers in bulk.
“To manage the fleece as well as we can, we try to keep the Wensleydales in clean paddocks and away from any brambles. We wash them early in the year to get rid of the worst of the winter dirt and then again two months and a month before the shows, but try not to over handle the fleece.”
This year the Pennells will be taking 12 Wensleydales to the Great Yorkshire Show, two for each class, along with four Teeswaters and four Cluns and will also be showing their Dales mare, Nipna Damask Rose and her filly foal, Nipna Queenie, so it looks like being a busy few days.
Anna says: “We have won hogg in wool, male and female championships with the Wensleydales, but never the breed championship.
“It would be really nice if we could do that this year as the Great Yorkshire is the highlight of our showing season and the one we really try to aim for.”
NIPNA DALES PONIES
THE Pennell family has been breeding Dales ponies for about 30 years. The breed is Grade 1 (critical) on the Rare Breeds Survival Trust list, with less than 100 foals registered each year.
One of their most influential stallions was Lowhouses Black Magic, which was Horse of the Year Show (HOYS) sire of the year in 2018 when the stud was also breeder of the year. It also has had the highest placed ridden Dales ponies at both HOYS and Olympia for the last two years.
As well as being used on their own mares, visiting mares are taken to the current resident stallion, Castlehill Black Jack. Most foals are sold weaned, with a few fillies retained to continue bloodlines but these usually enjoy a ridden career before joining the broodmare band.