A passion for the primitive Manx Loaghtan has led one couple to build up one of the largest existing flocks in the British Isles, and at the heart is wool production for the specialist wool fibre industry.
After years of being penalised on the open market for a product they felt they were working hard to produce, Jenny Shepherd and Rawdon Hayne were seeking a way to add value to their Manx Loaghtan fleeces.
Fast forward seven years, and the pair are about to open the doors to their first on-farm wool shop, which will sit alongside their already successful online sales of their own wool and wool products.
They farm at Ballacosnahan on the Isle of Man, which has been in Jenny’s family for more than 50 years.
It spans almost 80 hectares (200 acres) and sits in the south of the island, running from near top of the Slieau Whallian mountain down to the River Neb.
This is home to what is now their 600-head flock of breeding ewes, the foundations of which arrived 15 years ago, when Jenny was gifted six Loaghtans by a friend.
Income received from the wool sales is topped up with that from 20ha (50 acres) of hay which is also cut each year, producing about 550 big bales which are all sold to the equestrian market, aside from those kept for feeding sheep in the winter.
Explaining the origins of their flock, Jenny says: “I grew up on the Isle of Man around the Manx Loaghtan heritage, but hardly ever came across them. I got to know a couple of the breeders on the island and first got involved in handling the breed when I used to fly home from London, where I was living at the time, to help them show their sheep.
“As I researched the breed and became more aware of their heritage and rare status, I just thought it would be a tragedy to let this ancient breed die out.”
Jenny returned to the island in 2003, with Rawden moving over 10 years ago after retiring from a career in the film industry.
“I began keeping my own Loaghtans in 2004,” Jenny says.
“After moving back to the island and into a cottage with five acres, I was given six to mow the grass.
“I had been well-taught on what to look for in terms of breed characteristics, and became interested in showing them soon after they arrived. Breeding for quality wool really spiralled from there.”
Jenny started entering fleeces in the annual Royal Manx show soon after she started keeping Loaghtans in 2006, and has since claimed the title of ‘best Manx Loaghtan’ fleece in the show every year since then.
She says: “Entering the competition and taking pride in the fleeces is probably what first got us thinking about its quality, and what we could do with it above and beyond selling on the conventional market.
“We felt we were producing good quality Loaghtan wool which was not being recognised when it was combined in bulk with that from other breeders.
“There were times we were penalised for some of the lesser quality wool in the batch, and we felt the price we were getting was not reflective of the quality we were working hard to sustain.”
With this in mind, the pair took action and decided there was no harm in sending an initial batch of 80 kilograms to a spinner as an experiment to start with, to see what they could produce.
In the meantime, they set about designing their brand, Manx Loaghtan Produce, to market their products and begin selling their first 1,800 balls of wool.
“When that first batch arrived back, there was a slight moment of ‘what have we done’ as the pile looked endless,” Jenny says.
“But we got to work banding every ball of wool, and set up an online outlet so we could sell our product far and wide.
“We’ve found most demand comes from central and eastern America, as well as other markets overseas.
“During the time we have been selling the wool, we have had numerous visitors to the island who want to come and see where the wool is produced. This was one of the reasons for building our on-site shop, as well as making a dedicated space to store products and showcase them to potential customers who visit us at the farm.”
The pair are now sending just under 500 kilograms of their wool crop annually for spinning, and have also recently started to sell whole, raw wool fleeces, demand which is also primarily coming from customers in America.
Products they sell range from twine, single and double ply knitter’s wool balls, to a range of woollen products.
The slow-maturing nature of meat from the primitive Manx Loaghtan’s lends itself to an extensive system too.
But with wool production now the primary outlet for the flock at Ballacosnahan, this has adapted further to make sure of the highest quality fleeces can be produced.
Rawdon says: “For us, it is not about pushing throughput, as we are getting our income in another way.
“We’re not in a cycle of lambing, followed by weaning and pushing lambs for finishing, as we don’t need to be to get the best wool from the flock.
“Animals are two years old when they are first sheared. Thereafter, they are earing money via their wool they are producing, rather than the meat.
“Weather lambs produce the best wool as they do not have the stresses associated with lambing, which is why we keep them on in numbers each year.”
The system sees about 150 of the 600 ewes lambed each year, the majority of which will be shearlings which are lambed alongside selected others, with lambing taking place from the end of March, indoors to prevent lamb losses to predatory attacks from birds such as seagulls and ravens.
“But we will produce some meat, which takes about 18 months to mature and produces a product which is dark in colour, finely grained and low in cholesterol and fat,” Rawdon adds.
About 20 to 30 breeding rams are kept at any one time, some of which will be used on their own flock, while others are loaned to other Loaghtan breeders on the island to help keep bloodlines diverse.
Selecting their breeding rams on fleece quality is crucial.
“The fleece should be dark under its outer surface with no white cob- webbing, with a lighter top coat which is slightly paler due to its exposure to the elements,” Jenny says.
“Loaghtans should display a fairly straight back which goes into a curved rump and what should be a narrow, tapering tail which should end well above the hock.
“They are a multi-horned breed and in theory, animals can display up to six horns.
“We have had one display six in the past, but more commonly seen is a combination of two and four horns.”
The pair would, they say, continue to build numbers but without any further land availability at the moment this looks set to remain as it is for now.
But they are rightly more than content with the enterprise they have built.
It is one that reflects their values which centre on working hand-in-hand with the environment, while producing a sustainable product which is highly sought after.