Lustrous fleece selling point of Wensleydales

Bridget Misener learned lesson number one this summer for raising Wensleydale sheep: make sure to install a high fence.

Misener runs a small farm near Holstein, Ont., where she raises sheep and laying hens and spins sheep wool into yarn.

Misener became interested in Wensleydale sheep several years ago. The British breed is uncommon in North America.

She acquired her first group of Wensleydales last year, importing two ewes from Oregon and two ewes and a ram from New York.

She had her first crop of lambs this spring. Over the summer, Misener discovered that Wensleydale sheep could probably qualify as Olympic high jumpers.

“They are very curious and friendly, but high-strung. We use portable electric-net fencing and we had to change to a poultry netting, which is higher, because they would all jump out,” Misener said.

“The young ewes, which are tall and not filled out, they jump like deer.”

As noted on the Wensleydale’s Longwool Sheep Breeders’ Association website, the breed is large and “probably the heaviest of all (the) indigenous breeds” in Britain, with rams weighing more than 135 kg.

Stacey White, general manager of the Canadian Sheep Breeders’ Association, said he has heard of the breed but wasn’t aware that it was in Canada.

“It’s not a breed that we register…. It’s not one we work with here.”

The North American Wensleydale Sheep Association has about three dozen members, almost all in the United States.

Misener said she knows of a few people in Canada who raise Wensleydale sheep, including a producer in Nova Scotia.

She was attracted to the breed because she is a spinner and was seeking a niche product to sell.

She decided on Wensleydale sheep after considering alpacas because the breed produces un-usually long fleece.

“It (has) the finest, most lustrous long wool fleece,” Misener said.

“They grow about an inch of fleece a month. So if you sheared them once a year you’d have 12 inch (30 centimetre) fleece.”

Most sheep breeds produce fibres that are 7.5 to 12.5 cm long.

Misener said the long fleece from her Wensleydale flock will likely be sold into a niche fibre market.

“(It’s) used for novelty items: doll hair, beards,” she said.

“The ultimate goal would be to produce a 10 to 12 inch (25-30 cm fleece)…. At that length, fleece goes for $40 a lb. An excellent quality eight inch (20 cm) fleece would even go for that.”

In addition to marketing wool, Misener plans to sell her sheep as breeding stock.

The Wensleydale is desirable for cross-breeding because of the animal’s large size and its long coat of fleece.

“They’re also a… fast growing sheep. This ram I just sold, he’s five months old and well over 100 lb.,” Misener said.

Wensleydales are not well known in Canada but curious sheep producers and people in Canada’s wool industry have already contacted Misener about her flock.

“I haven’t really tried to advertise (but) people keep finding me. Hey, I want fleece or I want a lamb,” she said. “My fleeces keep getting spoken for, by word of mouth.”

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