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Cotswold sheep.

Although the Cotswold is a rare breed, this homesteader thinks they're the ideal small-farm sheep

After several years of sheep-raising in Maryland, my wife and I moved to the incomparable Greenbrier Valley of West Virginia. Over the years we have had eight breeds of sheep: Suffolk, Lincoln, Finnish Landrace, Hampshire, Rambouillet, Karakul, Dorset and Cotswold. Some years we had as many as four of these breeds at once, and have noted their various shortcomings and qualities over the years.

We have a small farm (10 acres), and are more self-sufficient than anyone we actually know. Alas, we do still use a little electricity, but we are carefully eliminating this on our farm. We're also working towards horse-powered transport; having sold both tractors, the horse is already working here. I mention all this to show just how much we must rely on our livestock, and how important superior stock is to us.

Their stock isn't babied

Though we practice careful husbandry, we do not baby any of our stock. We don't vaccinate for anything, relying instead on good husbandry: rotation, careful breeding and ruthless culling. Drugs are a last resort only. All these reasons are why we've settled exclusively upon Cotswolds for our sheep flock.

Cotswolds are hardy. All breeds are weakened by such things as cold driving rains, and the luster-wool breeds (Cotswold, Lincoln, Leicester) seem especially sensitive, but Cotswolds are smart enough not to need to be driven to shelter. And here I might mention that we have no barn, just the Biblical solution to the sheep shelter problem: the "sheep cote." (2 Chronicles 32:28.) We built ours very cheaply, but that's another subject. Sheep aren't long on smarts, true enough, but the self-preservation instinct is visibly stronger in some breeds than in others. In our portion of the Southern Appalachians temperatures have been known to go beneath -40 [degrees] F. Cotswolds don't seem to notice.

Cotswolds are easy keepers. Our Lincolns (whose wool beauty is perhaps second only to Cotswolds) were picky eaters, and weight gain was scant and expensive. The same goes for Hampshires. Our Suffolks were a little better, as were the Dorsets. Rambouillet, Karakul and Finnsheep were better still, but only their crossbred offspring equaled the Cotswold in universality of appetite and feed efficiency. Lincolns and their crosses, and Hampshires and their crosses, were about equal to the pure Suffolk in appetite and efficiency.

Incidentally, Cotswold crosses were faster growing, had more wool, and were just plain bigger than either of the parent breeds, and we found them the most productive of the many crosses we experimented with. We believe a Cotswold ram to be the cheapest way to vastly improve an ordinary farm flock. I know all this contradicts how all these breeds are touted, but our experience in 12 years' trials cannot be lightly dismissed.

They're easy on fences

And there's more! Some breeds of sheep were very hard to fence, being as agile as goats! Cotswolds really respect fences. They mind even poor fences, and we've seen them loathe to cross little two-foot fences which they could easily leap. Our Cotswolds will more likely cross low wooden fences than wire, but other breeds we've had could - and would - jump four-foot wire fences without trouble.

During a severe drought a couple of years ago we had only very poor quality hay, and only the Cotswolds stayed healthy and fit on it; so it was that we were forced to rid our farm of all other breeds. In Paula Simmons' excellent book, Raising Sheep the Modern Way, a panel of apparently ignorant "experts" gave Cotswolds ratings similar to more common luster-wool breeds, i.e., Lincoln and Leicester. While I must admit I know little of Leicesters, I know that I have never had, nor even heard of, a Lincoln which didn't require high feeding, especially when compared to the adaptable Cotswold.

Cotswolds are large, stunningly beautiful, noble, stylish animals. I have had local sheep farmers (who had never seen Cotswolds) ask me, "Why did you comb out all those sheep, are you showin' 'em?" I then explain that those striking "Marie Antoinette ringlets" are characteristic of the breed's fleece, and that "stylishness" is the word most commonly used in old sheep handbooks' descriptions of Cotswolds.

Sometimes, folks are suspicious about their nature: Cotswolds are very calm, and most people wrongly assume this is due to much handling.

Cotswold meat is the best-tasting lamb and mutton. The worst-flavored lamb we had was from the Rambouillets and their crosses. It was like eating lanolin. The best-tasting were from Lincolns and Cotswolds. I suspect the reason so many folks have rejected lamb is because they have had only the ubiquitous "lanoliny" lamb from the more common breeds - after all, that's what's mostly grown! Our Cotswolds not only tasted very good, but are economical growers, and the mothers are super milkers.

Cotswolds are easy lambers. The Dorsets, Hampshires and sometimes the Rambouillets had to be assisted at lambing. But Cotswolds have small heads for their size particularly at birth. Their fleece is about one inch long at birth, so that once dry, they fearlessly face cold weather.

I must add that long fleeces on mothers at lambing allow the little ones to nestle up against them when resting, and be almost completely hidden from cold air. It is a cozy, happy sight. In almost seven years, we've never assisted a Cotswold in lambing.

Cotswolds are good natured. The Rambouillets were true herd animals. Wherever one sheep went, so did they all. Other breeds are more or less so. Cotswolds are inclined to "spread out" and efficiently clean up the pasture. But when they see us, they lift their heads, and several at a time, they come up to investigate. They even come to strangers if they are with us. Otherwise they're cautious. One Lincoln ewe used to butt small children, and we had a very dangerous Rambouillet ram once. We have never seen a mean Cotswold, and even the most skittish of them is friendlier than many "average" breeds. They seem to be especially gentle with children, though I must confess that we cull and breed for extreme gentleness and friendliness (among other things) in our Cotswolds.

Then of course comes the wool. Oh, the wool! Words fail me for the beauty of it. Newcomers almost universally gasp with surprise at its sheen and silky softness. "Coarse" is the word used in the trade, but this only describes the diameter of individual wool fibers. The wool is anything but coarse," as in rope or burlap! Its extreme fiber length and follicle diameter makes knitwear unbelievably long wearing. A length of yarn made of it is quite difficult to break with the hands. Garments gleaming with the natural Cotswold sheen are deceptively tough. Ordinary wool garments, even handmade ones, leave little snibs and puffs all through the brush on our farm, and must be treated like invalids. Garments made of Cotswold wool actually rip the briers and brush from the plants on which they grow! But the clothing remains intact. Also, abrasion due to car seats, chairs and ordinary use, is reduced because individual fibers of Cotswold wool are not as fragile as those of "finer" wool.

Our Cotswold ram last year clipped 21-1/4 pounds of beautiful wool - after discarding the tags and belly wool! We average 10-15 pounds of wool (greaseweight) per year, per ewe. Even if retained for only five years, the Cotswold will produce perhaps 60-75 pounds of unwashed wool, translating to perhaps 45 sweaters or more smaller garments! For a cottage industry this certainly has big prospects, because its great fiber length is not easily worked by commercial machines. (Shearing twice a year makes a fleece short enough for commercial processing.) Thus Cotswold gives the consumer a real reason to buy higher-priced knit goods: greater beauty and durability than anything available in the department stores - including the foreign made goods!

The only drawback to these magnificent animals is that due to their slightly delayed sexual maturity and their looser herd instinct they have been found less suitable for the huge open-range sheep operations of the West or the mechanized feedlots of the Midwest. But Cotswolds are (we think) the finest breed of sheep for the homesteader and small farmer. This is how they have been raised for close to 2,000 years in Britain, and why they were the first breed recognized by a registry in the United States. In the past, farms were smaller and folks more self-sufficient. The need for durable garments was greater. Hardy, easily cared-for breeds were essential. Their fancy appearance beautified even the plainest pastures.

Perhaps this esthetic value is what capped our decision to raise Cotswold sheep. But it was undeniably their profitability, superb flavor, perfect wool, kind dispositions and easy keeping which made us decide to keep only Cotswolds! A rare breed now, true, but many years of experience shows the best single breed for self-sufficiency is still Cotswold.
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Author:Griffith, Nathan
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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