Sunday 24 October 2010

Blooming Sheep!

I often think that - "Blooming Sheep" (obviously a polite version), there are many occasions when they can cause utterances but this posting isn't going to cover any of that. The blooming of sheep may have been a better title.

How often have I and many others been asked "why are the sheep different colours?" or "why are some sheep black, others orange, or brown or yellow?"
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The above photos show what I mean - different coloured sheep? Why? How does that happen?

Well, to begin with, often when sheep are thriving, they will have a natural bloom, their wool isn't white (or off white)it will have a natural mild yellowness to it, a creamy colour possibly. Unfortunately this is not a hard and fast rule as I do know of one farm where the sheep do quite literally get whiter and whiter of the skin (wool)the more they thrive, I can only presume this is dependant on different types of land. In general though sheep will show a bloom to the skin when thriving.

This thriving colour is often pushed a bit further when it comes to presenting sheep for the sale or show ring.

Sheep out on the hills will often get into rubbings (areas where they can have a bit scratch), depending on whether they found a spot on a sandy bank side of the burn, peat hagg, or clay spot will determine what colour their wool picks up. Clay being stronger in colour than sand, peat more so and black rather than yellowy. All of this natural behaviour didn't go unnoticed by shepherds in the past, many quite liked the transformation and so the blooming (colouring) of sheep would commence.
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The above is a poor descriptive photo of iron water sediment, or ochre. It was always Shep's preferred choice, usually administered onto the wool with a brush or watering can with a small prayer for a shower of rain afterwards. If the colour came out right the sheep would almost have a foxy redness about them, with the natural oil found in the ochre giving the fleece a sheen to it. Many hard hill sheep such as Swaledales were coloured with peat. Blackfaces were often coloured with clay. Some would use red soil if available. I've even heard of someone many years ago using dysentery powder (left over on farm shelves once the dysentery vaccination came on the market) The colour often reflected what was available to use naturally off the farm or near by.

There are still traditionalists out there but in the modern era it is all too easy to buy bloom. Walk into an agricultural merchants and request a tub/bottle of bloom colouring and you would be amazed at the variety available. Coming in powder or liquid form and ranging from a shortbread colour right through to almost black. The dilution rates determining the strength of the colour.

When colouring a small number of sheep, such as for a show, a sprayer will often be used, a knapsack type sprayer with possibly a small hand held sprayer for touching up.

If wishing to colour a greater number of sheep such as for sale then the dipper will be filled.
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There are a variety of types of dipper out on the farms and some day I'll get around to that. For the time being just be content with the thought that sheep have a bath, not only do they have a bath but they'll find themselves fully immersed in the water (don't worry, they hold their noses!).
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The above shows the colour of the bloom against the natural whiteness of the fleece, once the sheep has been immersed in the water she will be the same colour all over, her wool picking up the colour out of the water.
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The sheep leave the dipper quite literally soaked to the skin. As the sheep's fleece dries the colour will often lighten. Hopefully to the colour you required.

Not only does 'blooming' give the sheep a bloomy look but in actual fact it also sets off the colours. As in colours I mean the leg and face colour. Many hill sheep (swales/blackies) have black and white legs, they also have black faces, some like the swale with white noses and eyes, others with white cheeks and crowns to their heads. The colour of their skin can actually accentuate the colour of the legs and head, making it stand out more and catch the eye. Mind you it does pay to wash faces and legs prior to showing as they too can hold some of the bloom colour used on the wool, you want them to look bright.

I once overheard a shepherd at Falstone Show when asked why the sheep were all coloured reply "It's just like the missus, they like to look their best"!