Here be sheep.
Resurrecting A British Sheep Breed
4 min read
Written by Tom Kay
From time-to-time, I give talks about Finisterre; the beginnings in my bedroom 10 years ago, how it began, why it started what we believe in as a cold-water surf brand. Some of it has been heard before, some of it not. One of the images I use is this one…
The reason I include it as the story behind us is that it's an example of when the brand really came together – UK supply chain, unbelievable narrative, great fabric, and a unique, legitimate relationship. It’s also somewhere that I never expected the brand to be, and something that I’m really proud of.
So the lady in the photo is Lesley, a hill farmer from Devon, passionate about rare breeds. Our paths met about 5 years ago when we were trying to find a British Merino sheep that we could use in our Merino wool products, rather than sourcing from overseas. This is the type of wool that has fine enough fibres not to be itchy next to the skin and can be used in base layers – the products we all wear a lot and for which Finisterre is known.
The story really started about 30 years ago the Macaulay Institute tried to introduce Merino sheep to the UK as a source of fine fibre wool. The breed did not take to the UK, so it was crossed it with a native Scottish sheep, the Shetland, to improve hardiness. After many crossings back to Saxon Merino, the resultant breed was the Bowmont – a great sheep – fine wool, great mother and survives in the UK climate. The Bowmont produced the intended superfine wool, but for one reason and another, Scottish hill farmers never took to them and the money for the project dried up in 2006.
At this stage, Lesley was asked to take on the best of the remaining flock of Bowmonts by the scientists who had spent years working on them. She brought the remaining purebred Bowmonts from around the country to her farm in Devon with a view to stabilising and developing the sheep. There were only 29 sheep.
For a couple of years she worked alone until Finisterre came on the scene as a cold water surf brand looking for a superfine UK Merino wool. For the past five years, we’ve been working together, us buying the wool while Lesley has been breeding the sheep. The first two seasons, we had to shear the sheep and store the wool as there was not enough wool to make any products. Today numbers are still small at 150 sheep, but we produced our first Bowmont jumpers last year – 100% sourced and manufactured in the UK. A resurrected sheep and a resurrected supply chain using some of the knowledge of the great British spinning and weaving families.
The pinnacle of the project so far was in 2010 when Lesley and the Bowmonts were asked to go to Savile Row as part of Prince Charles’ Campaign for Wool. So I donned my John Deere boiler suit and spent a day talking farming and fine fibre sheep on Savile Row, the most famous tailoring street in the world, something I never thought I’d end up doing. To this day, it was one of the best days in the business.
The Bowmont Product Update
As the flock grows so does the product range, the next Bowmont product (available early December and January) is a jumper and beanie knitted in a traditional Fair isle knit pattern. Inspired by the original men of the sea from this Shetland Isle who knitted and wore these Fair isle knits. The two-colour design is knitted with 100% pure Bowmont wool. The stranded loops behind form a bold surface pattern, as well as a double knit construction, which is durable, warm and resistant to the worst of the weather.
The Bowmont Fair isle is a celebration of British Merino and British knitting. This is a very personal supply chain: the Finisterre team work closely with Lesley, and we know every sheep in the Bowmont flock! Once the sheep are sheared, we transport and hand deliver the bales of fleece to the spinners in Yorkshire, where it is scoured, combed and spun into yarn. It is then dyed and knitted into jumpers and beanies in Scotland. It is a privilege to be so involved in this very special British Merino success story.