Dorset Downs: Across the generations

To celebrate the diversity of British sheep breeds this Wool Week I want to turn to one of my favourites and a family revelation.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Dorset Downs. They’re the sheep I associate with my childhood and who could not love that typically ‘teddy bear’ style Down with it’s distinctive brown face. But this weekend I found out our family has longer standing association with the Dorset Down.

Whilst visiting my parents and looking through old photographs, I came across one of my Mum with a sheep and not just any old sheep but a Dorset Down. When I asked her about it she said “oh yes, that’s me, Liz and Richard [my cousins] with Jimmy, my pet lamb’.


I wasn’t aware of my Mum ever having had a pet lamb so I asked where it came from.

It turns out Mum’s Uncle Henry was a shepherd and worked with a flock of Dorset Downs for New Barn Farm, Shapwick. Uncle Henry lived in a house on the corner of the lane my Mum and Gran lived on, although by the time I remember, the house was beyond dereliction and I never realised there had ever been a house there.

However, her memories weren’t all positive as she explained that one day Jimmy disappeared while she was at school. Pet lamb or no, Jimmy met the same fate as the rest of the lambs born that spring, no space for sentimentality or human attachment there then.

However, the story doesn’t end with Jimmy’s demise. Shapwick, the Dorset village in which my Mum grew up means Sheep Farm and according to East Dorset District Council’s Conservation Area Planning Guidance:

In the middle ages sheep formed the backbone of the local economy. The fields remained unenclosed until as late as 1813. The village was surrounded on three sides by Shapwick Down, comprising an area of open downland for sheep grazing crossed by a few tracks.

A bit more digging led to these pictures. Mum thinks the chap 5th along from the left in the back is Uncle Henry with other New Barn Farm workers with the photograph believed to have been taken in the 1930s or 1940s.


(Source: Memories of of Shapwick Facebook page)

In the picture below Shep Curtis is photographed looking at the camera; Shep Curtis being my Mum’s Granfer Curtis’ brother. The man holding the lambs tail to dock it, wearing the hat and with the suggestion of a hand knit sweater poking out between shirt sleeve and waistcoat, is again believed to be Uncle Henry.

(Source: Memories of of Shapwick Facebook page).

At this time lambs tails were docked using a docking iron, heated to both cut through the tail and cauterise the wound at the same time. The lamb is held in the sitting position and the tail placed on the wooden docking board.

Tails docked in this manner were, and in some areas continue to be, eaten. My Mum explained her mother’s preparation thus;

She rubbed in salt and left them covered in quite a lot of salt on the bricks under the stairs overnight. Then when they were warm the next day she rubbed in the salt to get the wool off; any that was still there was singed off with a candle. Then she put them in a casserole. They were really tasty.

The Dorset Down* originated in the 1800s, a result of crossing local Wiltshire, Hampshire and Berkshire ewes with Southdown rams (Rare Breeds Survival Trust). They’re a stocky sheep with dark hairless faces and are polled i.e. hornless.

According to the Dorset Down Sheep Breeders Association, Dorset lambs are ‘hardy at birth, vigorous and ready to suckle’. Ewes can take to the ram at 9 months and birth easily with little assistance at a percentage of 145 – 150%. The lambs mature early even when purely grass fed which, it argues, makes them ideal for lamb production and each lamb regardless of sex can be brought up to an 18kg carcass in 10-12 weeks. Well managed, commercial flocks can clear all lambs by 16 weeks. This may not be the most persuasive basis for championing them among knitters but even the vegetarians among us have to recognise that if it weren’t for the meat industry, sheep would not be commercially viable in the numbers we currently see as wool alone would simply not sustain sheep farming on it’s current scale.

What may be of more interest to knitters is that the fleece is regarded as ‘one of the most highly valued British Fleeces’. The fleece with its short fine staple (5-8cm, 30-32 microns) with good crimp and no kemp is even acknowledged by the Wool Marketing Board as a ‘Fine‘ wool with much of it going into the hosiery and fine tweed trade. Fleeces typically weight approx. 2.5 kg greasy and 2.2 kg washed. As such it is also ideal for hand knitting and spinning.

With all these undoubted qualities and the versatility of the rams in serving a wide range of ewes in commercial flocks; working from 8 months, high pheromone counts and an ability ‘work’ year round ‘serving’ 20 ewes in 24 hours meant that by the 1980s 43% of Britain’s ewe population was mated to a Down breed. You may wonder then why we see so little of them, indeed they are now on the RBST Watchlist as a minority breed with numbers in the range of 1500 – 3000.

The reason for this is put down to the introduction of well marketed foreign breeds, namely the Texel (DDSBA & RBST) but also the popularity of the Suffolk in recent years, reducing demand for Dorsets and leading to a reduction in flock numbers. However, the Breeders Association suggests things are looking up as a result of EU Common Agricultural Policy reform (although we can say goodbye to that now) and increasing interest in, and demand for, local food. That said the RBST notes that whilst other Down sheep have found their niche in recent years, the Dorset Down remains rare.

As a result and rather disappointingly, Dorset Down isn’t the easiest wool to come by for the spinner but even more so for the knitter. It may be that there are more yarns sold directly at local shows but for those of us relying on the internet to source our yarns from smaller producers, our options are limited. An extensive internet search produced the following suppliers.

Raw Fleece for hand spinning can be bought from Rampisham Hill Farm

Undyed Aran weight yarn spun by the Natural Fibre Company from the Garlic Meadow flock can be bought from their Etsy or Folksy shops for £4.50 per 50g ball or £20 for 6 balls

Organic undyed Aran and chunky weight yarn is available from the Organic Wool Shop, Tamarisk Farm, Dorset – 50g/70m for the Aran and 50g/55m for the Chunky and £6.50 a ball or £6.08 if you buy 12 or more. (they also have other organic single breed yarns in different weights)

Newmoor Barn sell carded wool from a cornish farm with an average staple length of 3 inches – undyed £2.50 per 50g and dyed £3.50 per 50g, raw unwashed fleece for £2.00 for 200g, washed fleece £4.00 for 200g

I’ve not tried any of these sources, but will, and will report back. If you know of other suppliers, please let me know.

A self interested plea to these and other potential producers, please have your fleece spun in finer weights too. The heavier weights are not to everyone’s taste and knitting preference, whilst they knit up quick, knitting heavier weights takes its toll on this knitter’s hands. Finer weights also mean you get more yardage for your fleece therefore a potentially better profit margin and increases your market to those of us who predominantly use finer yarns.

*Not to be confused with the Dorset Horn (also known as the Horned Dorset) or Poll Dorset which share a Breed Association. The Dorset Horn Sheep Breeders Association was established in 1891, and accepted the hornless Poll Dorset developed in Australia in the 1950s and outnumbering the horned variety by 1974, into it’s renamed Dorset Horn and Poll Dorset Sheep Breeders Association in 1981. Also not to be confused with the Polled Dorset developed in North American by selective breeding of the offspring of a ram which grew no horns and bred true. Whilst the Dorset Horn is easily distinguished from the Down by its horns, both it and the poll and polled are also distinguishable by their white faces compared to the brown face of the Down.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.