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Long-Wolled Sheep Produces "Golden" Fleece
Sheep breeders looking for the proverbial "golden fleece" may have found it in an ancient line of sheep, the Wensleydale. The old English breed produces wool fibers that are long and lustrous with the characteristics of Mohair and a 160-lb. lamb in 21 weeks.
There is only one problem. "No purebred Wensleydales exist in the U.S. today," says Zane Smith, one of only two or three importers of Wensleydale semen.
Existing in only limited numbers in the United Kingdom and Europe, the Wensleydale is a rare breed.
With the formation this past year of the North American Wensleydale Association (NAWA), a group of sheep breeders have dedicated themselves to promoting the breed's bloodline. They are using imported semen on Lincoln, Cotswold and English Leicester ewes to "breed up" the breed in the U.S. Currently there are only a few 75 percent second generation animals in the country.
"Once we get purebreds, we need to promote them as terminal sires in commercial flocks to compete with Suffolk and Hampshires," says Sherry Carlson, NAWA secretary and a breeder with 30 head of first generation Wensleydale/Lincolns. "We are seeing an awful lot of hybrid vigor, producing healthy lambs growing at a very fast rate."
Developed originally as terminal sires in England, rams are big, reaching 350 lbs. or better while ewes mature at 250 lbs. Ewes are very prolific with a 25 percent lambing average. And a typical fleece has a staple length of 8 to 12 in. and a weight of 13 to 20 lbs.
Growing concern over the devastating disease scrapie (similar to BSE in cattle, but not proven transmissible to humans), may also feed demand for Wensleydale sheep. The long-wooled breed has the highest natural resistance to scrapie of all recognized sheep breeds in the United Kingdom. A buyer of a Wensleydale ram has a 92 percent chance that ram will be genetically resistant to the disease and that none of his crossbred progeny will be susceptible either.
Carlson reports first generation rams and wethers are selling for $300 to $500 in California due to the high demand for their wool from spinners. White Wensleydale wool is often back ordered, she says, due to demand from doll makers and others. Carlson has a waiting list for her flock's wool.
Few Wensleydale crossbred ewe lambs are available at this time due to the high interest among breeders in expanding their flocks, and only 8 lines of breeding exist in the U.S. Carlson hopes that will expand once the situation improves in the U.K. At this time, available semen ranges from $70-$80 up to $135 per straw, depending on the ram line and importer. Cross bred rams are available, but none have yet achieved registered status. Prospective breeders should study the association rules before buying and then study the pedigree of the animals carefully, keeping mindful of the limited genetics available.
"If we breed carefully and communicate, we can develop a good cross section of genetics," says Carlson.
Contact: FARM SHOW Followup, Sherry Carlson, 4589 Fruitland Road, Loma Rica Calif. 95901 (ph 530 743-LAMB; E-mail: sherry@wensleydalesheep.com) or Zane Smith, Goose Hill Farm, Hamilton, N.Y. (ph 315 691-9830; E-mail: goosehillfarm@hotmail.com).

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2001 - Volume #25, Issue #3