Thursday, 8 September 2011

Pink Wool

This posting has nothing to do with blooming sheep. Actually, most of the postings have something to do with 'blooming' sheep! What I mean is the title - Pink Wool - has nothing to do with the blooming or colouring of fleeces which occurs for shows and sales, although it has been known for things to go wrong when colouring sheep for sale and I'm sure pink sheep may well have inadvertently come out at the other end of the process. I recall once seeing some mule ewe lambs which had ended up some putrid pea green colour - different!

For quite a number of years now I have noticed sheep with a pink cast to their wool, these observations are generally made at clipping time, when I suppose the wool is at the front of your mind and in my case right under my nose all day.

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Over the years I have asked a number of farmers I've been working for what they think causes the pink wool on their sheep. Many have asked "what pink wool" and one farmer in particular was determined I was taking the piss (pulling his leg), until I dragged him along, told him to put his specs on and have a closer look, the reply was "well! I've never seen that before" (obviously!)

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Not all sheep and their fleeces have this pink tinge to the wool. You can have a group of sheep forward to clip and none may show the pinkness, in another group there may only be a handful whereas another group again may have many with a hint of pink on the ends of the wool.

So, for quite a number of years I have been querying this throughout the Tarset valley, most of the flocks I deal with throughout the year and so am aware of any treatments the farmers use. Some plunge dip whilst others don't, some use a pour on and others don't. There just never seemed to be a common denominator as to one management practice which involved the sheeps clothing which could be linked to every farm and result in pink wool.

My imagination began to run riot, could it be the rain? Acid rain? some peculiar pink fall out from the sky? That's it! a fallout from the sky - Mars is exfoliating and dropping dust on our sheep !!

As I have muttered on over the years it has got the farmers themselves thinking, a mineral deficiency seemed the most probable explanation, as mineral deficiences can affect some sheep more than others, depending on their metabolism and ability to maximise the minerals they ingest, that could explain why some sheep have a pink tinge when others don't. Although not rule of thumb a sheep with a pink tinge on the wool may also have been a lame sheep or something less thriven than others, however many perfectly healthy sheep would also show the pinkish hue on their fleeces so again this seemed to rule out that particular train of thought.

I have to say that for the past couple of years I had almost forgotten about my quest to ascertain where pink wool came from. Until this year, when it came to the fore once again. There was much crack (conversation) at the time regarding pink wool, some thought there seemed to be more sheep affected than on other years, that the colour saturation was probably even denser - more noticeable.

I was away clipping over the border and couldn't help but ask a retired shepherd, a gent in his 80's and hugely knowledgeable about sheep whether or not he knew the cause of pink wool. He had to admit he had never given it any thought and really couldn't think what the answer may be, but before I could feel deflated I heard the answer from behind me "It's the grasses"

The shepherd on the farm, who admittedly isn't as old as the gentleman I had asked but who is close to retiring and again highly knowledgeable about all matters sheep had come up with a possible explanation. Before long I was presented with a bouquet, not quite the sort you'd have in mind but a bouquet consisting of a variety of grasses.
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Indeed many of these grasses have a red/pink seed head. The shepherd went on to explain that it was these grasses which 'dyed' the wool. "But why is it only the backs of the sheep which are pink?" the sides of the fleeces are getting washed off as they walk through the grasses or bracken, the long stalks of the grass are closer to back height anyhow. Lame things or something not as well thriven are likely to appear pinker due to the fact they will be lying down for longer spells. Not all sheep are going to show the colour on their coats as they all have slightly different foraging routes and also different coats, some may be more susceptible than others to holding the colour than others.

Do you know? Years of wondering, questioning, perusing, concluding had never drawn me to this fairly obvious answer. I don't know that it is correct but it is the most logical explanation that I have come upon yet.

This year the grass has grown like it's never grown before (probably a slight exaggeration there), we have had one of the grassiest years I can recollect for a long time. The grasses grow tall and carry their seed heads through the early summer months, once the clipping season is over there are very few coloured grass heads to be found, most of them having dried out ready to seed and the colour has been lost, which might explain why the colouration on the sheep is more obvious when they are in full fleece.

I don't know, I'm not a scientist. I do however have a lot of time and respect for those who have been in the trade for a long time, men who have grown up amongst sheep, worked and lived with them for a lifetime know far more than many of the rest of us. Until someone can prove otherwise I am going with this explanation I received this summer. Pink wool is caused by grass pollen.

Maybe someone out there has another take on the idea, feel free to leave a comment as none of us are too old to learn.


Dr Clive Dalton said...

Hi Shep - pink wool- that's got your brain cells revving. Well don't lose to much sleep as the stain is caused by a fungus.

There are many fungi found in wool caused by wet conditions. Our New Zealand Merinos are prone to some - there's a beautiful canary yellow stain and a dark green one. All very pretty to look at but ruinous for the fibre.

Pink stain is common in our North Island Romneys after long wet conditions. Keeping wool short to let more air contact is a way to prevent it but this means shearing twice a year - summat your back may not fancy!

Most of the pink stain scours out but you get downgraded as a result of the extra cost to the processor.

Keep up the good work and make sure you don't die wondering!

Tarset Shepherd said...

Fungus! you mean mouldy sheep? Definitely has been wet enough without a doubt.

Fascinating information. Thank you.

I'm now going to look forward to hunting for yellow and green wool to add to our pink wools. Actually my imagination could run riot on that one, there could be an opening for some modern art in there somewhere!

Many thanks for sharing your wisdom, much appreciated.

Dr Clive Dalton said...

Whoa - hang on a bit! I got it wrong! Pink stain or 'water stain' is caused by a BACTERIUM and not a fungus! Two very different critters!

The bug lives within the fibre and the stain cannot be scoured out. Still a lot to discover about it apparently. Wet weather and fleece not getting a chance to dry is the problem.

Dr Clive Dalton said...

But wait there's more! Here's the name of the bugs which live in a sheep's fleece and cause stains.

Water stain/Pink rot
Discolouration associated with Bacillus subtillis.

Green stain that turns brown with oxidation
Discolouration associated with Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

Blue banding
Discolouration associated with Pseudomonas indigofera.

Tarset Shepherd said...

Blimey! you've been busy doing your homework haven't you? Bacteria now - so we haven't got mouldy sheep after all, they've got a bug instead, ones with fancy names at that!

Very interesting facts, don't know what the farmers of the North Tyne will think when I start spurting out latin names when discussing the pink wool debate...... :)

Thanks Clive - very helpful.

Tarset Badger said...

Pink wool can also be an indication of selenium deficiency, leading to white muscle disease!!! Most Tarset hill flocks suffer from a lack of this mineral!!

Tarset Shepherd said...

Hello Badger, there's no doubt there is a selenium problem in this area, has been well documented in the press over the years that wet weather washes the stuff out of the ground and we definitely seem to get our fair share of wet weather.

This pink wool thing is getting very interesting, we have the potential of mouldy, bacteria infested, mineral deficient, pollenated, pretty pink sheep running around on our hills - fascinating stuff! Interesting comments coming through. Thanks for the input.

Dafad said...

Hello Shep,from the Gwent hillside
I found this interesting, earlier in the year I helped a local farmer baling wool at shearing time. On a day down-country near Abergavenny I commented that his sheep looked "as pink as pigs.Up here on the mountain his sheep (Welsh Mountain & Texel) are mainly white. He told me it was due to the colour of the soil and I have photo's to prove that indeed fleece and land match.
The fleece was coloured all over, not just in a way that they may have rolled over causing colouration in only parts of the fleece and I did not notice any particularly dark red grass seed-heads.

Just the other day I asked if he had brought some up-country as there were several "punk pink" ewes in one of his fields. Indeed he had moved some to the hills ready for tupping.

So, I will keep an eye on these dyed in the wool lot and see if there are noticeable differences over the following weeks.
Just another very amateur view point.

Tarset Shepherd said...

Dafad - Welcome! I just love the thought of 'punk pink' sheep. Suits my sense of humour!

Seems like these sheep may do what some of ours do, unfortunately we are on mainly peaty ground and when they get into rubbings or whatever they turn a brown colour, sometimes in sandy rubbings on the waterside they turn a yellowy colour, or a clay colour.

On a farm in cumbria where I work they have red soil and the sheep can take on a reddish hue.

Fascinating stuff though, almost tempted to trot down to Wales to view punk pink sheep.....

Thank you for the input and keep a beady eye on them there critters, updates always welcome.

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