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An update from the farm | Bowmont

Back in 2005, we made a unanimous decision to place wool at the centre of our fabric development. One of the oldest natural fibres known to man, its functional properties are well known and it’s why you’ll find it throughout much of our range. 

Two years of detective-like research eventually led us to Lesley Prior, producing Merino wool in Devon UK under the name Bowmont. The fine fibre Bowmont wool combines the hardiness of a Shetland with the softness of a Merino sheep. Lesley’s sheep have been selectively bred for 13 years using the best modern Australian genetics to produce top quality Superfine Merino in UK conditions. We had found the answer to our quest; and in the process helped secure the future of this research-based flock.

10 years after Finisterre first met Lesley, the flock is now close to 350 sheep strong. It’s a privilege to have pioneered this British Merino success story and built a 100% British supply chain from scratch.

We caught up with Lesley for an update.

How are the sheep?

They’re doing fine thanks. We’ve had a good summer with lots of good grass growth meaning they are looking fit and well. We lambed in 3 batches this year – February, late March and early July so we’ve only just weaned the last batch of lambs from their mums.

Right now as I speak we’re gearing up for the whole cycle to begin again and the rams will go in to the girls at the end of November.

What else has happened this year?

In the early summer I spent some time in Australia including a 1000 mile road trip round New South Wales looking at new genetics. We’ve selected the next round of semen and embryos to bring over. They will arrive, we hope, early next year, ready to be used in our sheep in Autumn 2018. We are getting increasingly worried about the effect Brexit will have on our ability to bring genetics in from Australia in the short to medium term so we’re pushing the boat out and trying to get as much as we can in during the next year.

As part of the Australia trip I had the chance to visit one of the best Superfine breeders in Australia. He’s a professional wool classer and sheep grader and together we went through his own sheep, with him explaining his grading.

In June, he came to the UK on a return trip and stayed with us. He went through all my core breeding stock grading it for me which was incredibly helpful.

After going through the two flocks here and in Australia I felt much more confident in my decision making for breeding. He was very impressed with the quality of the stock. We have some superb sheep now. One of my adult rams was classed as 1* (best of the best) and all the others were 1 except one 2.  (Grades go down to 5 so we were very pleased!).

How is the breeding programme going?

Right now, my helper and I are making final runs through the breeding ewes to select the best for breeding. We are dividing the flock into Elites and Commercials. Only the Elites breed. That way quality is driven forward with each generation.  We are going to lamb late next year (May 2018), which makes life a bit easier than struggling with cold winter days and little grass.

We’re also developing a new diet for the sheep over the winter, working with help from some researchers in Australia. It’s all to do with Omega 6. By altering the diet we hope to produce more ewe lambs. Currently we are always top heavy with boys. This new work gives us the chance to tip the balance a bit.

In March we exported our first group of Merinos to Switzerland. The Swiss authorities had filled the quota for 2017 by March but made an exception for our Merinos which we were rather proud of. 12 top ewe lambs and 3 rams went to start a satellite flock near Zurich.

What have been your other highlights of the year?

Back in May, I was invited to speak at the IWTO Conference in Harrogate; I then went to the Australian Superfine Wool Growers conference. It’s great to be getting the word out to the wool community. 

We were really pleased to be nominated for the British Farming Awards “Sheep Innovator of the Year” category. We were Runners Up at the award ceremony in Birmingham in October 2017. We were competing against some of the biggest names in the meat sheep industry so were particularly proud that Merino wool came 2nd in such impressive company!

More locally, I’ve hosted a visit from Exmoor Farmers “Future Farming” group who were fascinated by what we do. 

Where do you see the Bowmont Merino flock growing to in the next few years?

We are growing each year – to what point depends on health and strength of the shepherd! Animal Welfare is our priority so we can only grow to the point where we can still look after every sheep to the highest standards. Probably around 1000 sheep is the right size for us – but quality is crucial. We don’t just breed sheep for the sake of it. Each ewe and ram pair is carefully chosen to ensure a top quality, healthy lamb suitable for our environment.  We continue to work with our partners in Australia, importing new genetics each year to produce even better wool and sheep but we also freeze genetics regularly in case of disasters like Foot and Mouth.  

This year we began exports to Europe. There have always been Merinos in Europe and farmers there are very keen to use our sheep to improve their flocks. We’ve had the highest Export Health Status here since day one – really important because taking good care of sheep health just makes sense in all ways. Looking after our sheep is good for them and good for us. What we do is innovative and charting new territory in so many ways but at its core is good old - fashioned Husbandry – care for animals and the environment which supports us all.

Can you give us an update on the shearing process?

Shearing takes place when the wool is long enough. The sheep are glad to be rid of long hot fleeces and I love seeing them skipping off like Spring lambs once they are done. Our shearers are doing a good job here. They shear more slowly because of the fleece characteristics so we have to pay double for their time – but that’s fine. A good job needs paying for – just like a good product. If it’s at all cold or windy, we keep shorn sheep in our warm barns long enough for their wool to grow sufficiently before they go outside.  This year we arranged for the son of the top shearing trainer in Australia to come over and work with my shearer for the summer. Andy shore my sheep and then went on to Switzerland and shore my sheep again out there!

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