Back in 2005 we were looking to expand our British supply chain and wool, we reasoned, would be a great place to start. There are sheep all over the place, so why couldn’t we use their wool, instead of exporting it from Australia and New Zealand? Well, it turned out that there was a lot more to it than that.
This is the story of The Bowmont Project, the very pinnacle of our wool range.
The commonly held belief was that you just couldn’t grow Merino in Britain, but after two years of scouring the land we finally discovered Lesley Prior; the custodian of the last twenty-eight Bowmont Merino sheep in Britain. Working closely with Lesley, we helped introduce her to experienced Australian Merino growers and over time helped increase her flock to the current number of over 300.
The Bowmont is an ancient breed that crossed the fine wool of a Saxon Merino with the hardiness of the local Shetland. It was an attempt to create a breed that would produce highly prized, superfine Merino wool but in a sheep that would survive and thrive in the British climate.
It wasn’t something that she had planned to take on, already caring for a specialised herd of cashmere goats. In her own words, she ‘didn’t speak sheep’, but the project was about to be abandoned; all efforts shut down and the flock sent to the abattoir. Lesley was the last hope for this ancient breed, and her heart won the battle.
Merino is so highly prized because of its low micron count; incredibly fine and soft, it's ideal for use in finely woven garments. Combine this with its thermoregulating, moisture-wicking and anti-bacterial properties, Merino makes the perfect fabric for next-to-skin base layers and has been a part of our range for years.
All previous attempts to create a viable Merino growing sheep, able to cope with the British weather, had concentrated on cross-breeding Merino genetics from Australia with British sheep such as the Shetland or Romney. The results had been underwhelming, and when Lesley initially invited some Australian Merino growers to come and asses her flock, they politely (but firmly) told that the breed she was currently working with was ‘rubbish’.
Most people would have given up at this point. Thankfully for us, Lesley is not most people. She decided that to improve her flock and create a truly British Merino breed she needed to see the whole picture. She travelled to Australia and spent months sequencing genetics of different Merino sheep, visiting all the major breeding farms in the country. She quickly realised that by simply crossing the Australian breeds with the British ones, the quality of wool was too greatly compromised. A different approach was needed.
Without delving too deeply into the genetic science, sheep can vary greatly even within a specific breed, just like with plants. Some might be tall, some short. Some may have bigger leaves, others may produce better fruit. These are all specific traits that are passed down genetically. It’s why we have specialised crops like bananas, strawberries and a host of other plants that we have selectively bred to produce certain desirable results.
Lesley realised that by taking the same approach with her flock, she could identify which specific traits would be beneficial and slowly set about creating a genetic super-sheep; importing embryos and semen samples from Australia to steadily improve the genetics of her flock and the wool they were producing. The Journey was long, complex, and costly but Lesley was relentless in her pursuit of success. Just like Finisterre, she is constantly striving for a better product, doing things differently no matter how difficult or how long it takes.
We’ve known and been working with Lesley for just over a decade now and are incredibly proud of this British manufacturing story. In our time working with her, the numbers have grown from just those original 28 sheep to over 300. Those same Australians who so politely disparaged the quality of her flock at the beginning are now regular visitors and old friends. “I’d take that one home in a heartbeat” is something Lesley has become accustomed to hearing from them now.
It just goes to show what the right attitude, hard work and good people can do when they come together, producing something truly special.
Words by Zak Rayment