Wednesday 19 October 2011

keeling - stock mark

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Above are pots of keel, sheep keel.

Known locally as keel but nationally as marking fluid. The word fluid makes you imagine the marking substance must be a liquid, well it ain't! although there are some products on the market which are indeed quite liquified, the majority tend to be of a more solid consistency, something like putty I guess. There again, temperature has a lot to do with just how liquified the keel may become, used on a hot day it definitely begins to melt, a cold day it can be quite solid.

Keel is basically a 'paint' which is applied to the sheeps wool.
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It can be acquired in various colours, the main ones being red, blue, green, black and orange.
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Applied to the fleece by way of a keel stick, usually a purposefully cut piece of hazel which will have been used for years, stored with the keel pots until keeling time comes around again. There are some who apply keel with a brush (especially on fresh shorn sheep) and some who use a spatula shaped stick to 'slap' the keel onto the wool.

A stick as shown in the above photos enables the person who is keeling to actually twist the keel into the wool giving it a better and deeper hold of the fleece.
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The final result is a fairly permanent keel mark on the wool of the sheep.

So why put a painted blob on the sheeps wool?

This is a stock mark. Each farm has it's own stock mark or marks. You can easily cast your eye over your sheep and quickly notice if there are any which don't belong to you or have found themselves on the wrong part of the farm or hill ground. Every farmer recognises his neighbours keel marks and can easily distinguish that a) the sheep doesn't belong on this farm (or part of the farm) and b) where it does belong. Should it be a neighbours sheep it will be gathered in, horn burns checked and either returned or a 'phone call to come and collect will be made.

Not only are there a variety of colours of keel but there are also a variety of places upon the sheeps body where the keel mark can be placed. The sheep has two sides to her to start with. Some may keel on the near rib, others the far rib. There is also the shoulder and hook (hip), some even put a double keel mark upon their sheep.

Keeling time is usually in the back end of the year. Once draft (retiring) ewes have been pulled off the flock and anything which isn't good enough to continue as a flock sheep either due to udder problems or just a poor type of sheep a final count will be made. Most hills tend to keep the same number of sheep running on the ground from year to year (give or take one or two). Once the sheep are sorted and the farmer or shepherd is content with the numbers and quality present these sheep will be given the permanent flock mark.

By the back end the wool has grown sufficiently to allow the keel to be well adhered to the fleece. It ought not to grown out or fade too much in the ensuing months.
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Regardless of what weather the sheeps wool may be subjected to throughout the winter months it is expected that the keel mark will not find itself 'washed' out of the fleece. As with these ewes, the blue keel mark on their near rib is clearly visible.
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The fleece is removed off the sheep at clipping (shearing) time during the summer months and the keel mark is still clearly visible. Blue on the near (left) rib, red on the near (left) shoulder and green on the far (right) rib, still clearly visible and easy to tell which cuts of the hill these sheep had belonged. The wool board who buy the fleeces do prefer smaller keel marks, although the keel is scourable it will take a bit of removing.
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Some keel their sheep after they have been clipped, this mark will last on the sheep through to keeling time but due to there not being any wool cover to hold the mark it will begin to fade and will require being re applied in the back end to enable it to last throughout the winter.

I know of two farms who actually put a 'bust' on their sheep after clipping time. This being applied by ways of a 'busting' iron. A large metal letter on the end of a metal shank. This letter is dabbed into the keel pot and the keel which is stuck to it is then 'stamped' onto the sheeps back, along similar lines to the following picture
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