Outdoor Work Summer update

By Andrew Martin, Head of Outdoor Work

It’s only been two months since my last update on the farm, yet it seems a small lifetime ago as so much has happened. We finished our first wave of lambing just in time for the Easter holidays, which produced a healthy flock of 22 new lambs. As the majority of these lambs are Jacob ewes crossed with a Southdown ram, they should reach a finished weight this autumn and will be ready for sale then.

We are currently mid-way through our second wave of lambing with our Jacob sheep, which has also produced 22 lambs (and counting). These are currently in Butts field, on the right as you drive into school. Our pure Jacob flock differs greatly from the earlier flock as they are much slower growers. They have a unique fleece and are a beautiful breed to work with.

Each year during lambing we hope to find the next star ewe lamb who has all the desired traits that make up the strict characteristics of a pure Jacob. All those who don’t quite make the cut and all the males are kept for about 14-18 months before they reach their desired size and weight. Teaching our students about where meat comes from and how long it takes to produce it is integral to discussions about food, the choices we make, and the impact those choices have on our environment.

Our beautiful Dexter herd arrived in March and has been a great hit with the students. One of the primary reasons for getting them was to build on the therapeutic side of animal husbandry. The cows have gone from being a little wary at the start, to being friendly and interested in us. They are all happy on a halter (most days!) and walk really well with their student handlers. We have the cows grazing alongside our ewes and lambs which makes a beautiful sight.

On 11 April, Favour, our pregnant Dexter cow had to have an emergency caesarean. Her calf was presenting in such a way that she could not deliver it herself. It is at least 25 years since I’ve seen the procedure carried out and it was as dramatic and impressive to witness as I first remember. Unfortunately, despite the amazing skills of the vet, the calf was stillborn. Favour was heroic throughout and is making a speedy recovery.

For years now we have been slowly developing the large field opposite the Dunhurst entrance (part of which was a football pitch). Over the Easter break we made the biggest change yet and thanks to a local contractor we split the field into four smaller fields averaging 3.2 acres each. Between each field we have left a corridor for hedging and trees to be planted.

There is enough space for around 1700 hedge plants and 30 trees, six of which we have already planted. This area alone will create much needed habitat for dwindling wildlife. One of the new fields is naturally wet and has the potential to be developed into a habitat that will support many more plant and animal species. (I can see a whole school effort on the cards!!)

Elsewhere on the farm, we have now sold 15 of the 18 piglets born earlier in spring. The pigs go to local families and village pig syndicates who rear them over a six-eight month period. We have also over seeded a small field with a herbal ley for the first time, this is to create a more diverse environment within our field and to provide more mineral and trace elements to the pasture as well as medicinal qualities for our livestock. As the soil warms up and the trees and hedgerows fill out we are looking forward to the beauty that the land provides on our very own farm.

April has proved to be a very challenging month. There has been a record number of frosty mornings and no rain to kick start the grass growth we so desperately depend on at this time of year. It’s not often you hear farmers praying for rain, but if you listen really carefully this year you just might!

We are still on the look out for a pony or donkey. If you hear of any safe, reliable animals (preferably one that can pull a cart, although not essential), please do let us know. 

For the latest updates from Outdoor Work, make sure you’re following us on Instagram and Twitter.

Jacob sheep wool blankets available to buy

By Marcella Craven, ODW Tutor Technician

Many of you may have seen the beautiful blankets and shawls sold in the Outdoor Work shop here at Bedales. We currently have large blankets (202cm x 149cm, £200) and medium blankets (142cm x 149cm, £120), as well as two wraps/shawls (£70) and balls of Jacob yarn, double knitting weight, in cream, dark brown and oatmeal (£4 per 50g ball) available to buy. To put in an order, please email outdoorwork@bedales.org.uk.

We thought you might like to know a little more about the work and process that goes into producing these unique items. The blankets and shawls are made from Jacob sheep wool, produced from our rare breed flock which numbers approximately 48 breeding ewes and lambs. Jacob sheep fleece is brilliant for weaving purposes as they produce different colours of wool which allow a natural coloured end product which has not been dyed in anyway.  The staple length of the wool is also excellent which makes it really popular among spinners.

Every year we hire a professional shearer to shear our flock. Shearing day usually takes place in June and is always popular with our students and our sheep, who enjoy getting a haircut once the weather warms up! It takes us around two years before we have enough wool fibre to make it worthwhile sending it to be processed into yarn.

Once shorn from the sheep, the fleeces are rolled and stored ready for our students to help sort the fleeces. They take away any old, matted or ruined wool from the fleece and separate the fleece into colours, white, brown and mixed colour wool. It’s a great way to learn about the qualities of raw wool, it’s many uses and feel the lanolin on their hands. This year we collected 132kg of white wool, 81kg of brown wool and 33kg of mixed colour wool (once spun this will be grey).

The wool is then rammed into large fibre sacks, which are sent to The Natural Fibre Company based in Cornwall.  They scour (wash) the wool and set up their spinning machines so that once spun and oiled the returned product is only the unique wool we have sent to them.

The mill make three products for us, spun yarn to knit with, washed and carded fibre to spin with at school and spun yarn to weave with. Once spun and on a cone, the weaving wool is sent off again.  This time it travels to Wales to the Melin Teifi Wool Mill in Dyfed, Ceredigion.  Here it is handwoven into the blankets, wraps and scarves which you would recognise from the ODW shop.

The effort, care, process and craftsmanship that goes into making these products ensures that the end result is totally air mile free, British made, and 100% Bedalian.

To celebrate lambing season and to mark the end of term, we are offering you the chance to WIN a medium blanket worth £120! Find out how to enter on Bedales’ Instagram page here.

Spring is in the air in Outdoor Work

By Andrew Martin, Head of Outdoor Work

The change in the weather has really brought the farm to life, which is so wonderful to see. Last week our ‘spring’ flock of Southdown and Southdown X Jacob sheep started to lamb. As I write this we have 10 adorable little black lambs running around; we are just waiting on our three Southdowns (Sammi, Saoirse and Sophie), as well as our two Herdwicks, to deliver!

Our two sows, Little Pig and Bessie, didn’t want to miss out on the action either. They have been crossed with a British Saddleback (Basil). Between the two girls they farrowed 18 beautiful little black pigs, each with a white belt around their shoulders.

Running a school farm is a unique and rewarding job. Connecting students to the land and working with the animals is mostly a joy. Showing students across all three schools around the farm is one of my favourite things to do. Finding the balance between education and farming, whilst keeping animal welfare at the heart of everything we do, is a constant thing and something I believe we do very well here. We are not a petting farm nor do we want to be one. We want to educate students about food, farming and the environment, and how they are all linked.

Last weekend was a very strange one. It was probably the first time we felt that fine balance becoming a little unstable.  A combination of new arrivals, shining sun, schools reopening and the prospect of some return to normality, saw – to use a fashionable word – unprecedented numbers of visitors at the Black Barn.

When you have a large number of young, excited children, ramblers, dog walkers and picnickers, the tranquillity of giving birth very quickly disappears and the animals get stressed. This was very evident for a period of time. Everyone thinks their child and dog is safe, but to a sheep every dog is a wolf. Standing chatting beside a very pregnant sheep while dipping into some hummus may sound idyllic, but I’m confident the sheep wouldn’t agree. Likewise noisy children around little piglets and farrowing sows causes distress, resulting in squashed piglets and anxious mums.

So, although I don’t want to sound like a grumpy farmer, maybe this is a timely reminder about the countryside code. It is such a wonderful time of year and being able to experience nature so closely is so very special. Let’s try to remember the animals and their needs, alongside our own, human wants.

For all the latest updates from Bedales Outdoor Work, make sure you’re following us on Instagram and Twitter.

Outdoor Work update – Summer 2020

By Andrew Martin, Head of Outdoor Work

The Summer term is usually the busiest and most rewarding; students can literally see the fruits of their labour all around them. But at the moment, certain areas of Outdoor Work (ODW) remind me of a post-apocalyptic movie. People have gone, tools have been left, a shoven leaning against a wall is slowly being choked by bindweed as it makes its way up the shaft. Yet despite the eerie silence and our missing workforce, plants still grow and animals still need tending…

Every year we time the lambing of our Jacob sheep to start at the beginning of the Summer term. This year at the black barn, we got 26 lambs from 15 ewes. Across the yard, our two sows, Bessie and Little Pig, were busy giving birth to 22 piglets between them. The barnyard was buzzing with new life and a welcome distraction for passers-by on their daily lockdown walk.

We currently have around 90 sheep on the farm. They are all at different stages of life and require a lot of hands-on work. Social distancing and farming don’t really go well together and it is at times like this that the term ‘Bedales bubble’ has been very appropriate. Without the help of students, regular jobs like weighing, treating, foot trimming, shearing and moving sheep have been a challenge. But my ‘ODW bubble’ of Kirsten, Marcella, Oscar Kingsley-Pallant, Josh Baty and my family has worked wonders!

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Bedales sheep bring victory

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By Andrew Martin, Head of Outdoor Work

On Saturday night at the Small Shepherd’s Club AGM, Kirsten Houser and I were the proud recipients of the McLellan Lambing Trophy (pictured above with Etty and Sasha). The trophy is awarded to the flock with the highest lambing percentage. Although we came second in 2018, in 2019 we were finally victorious!

Here in Outdoor Work, we have a long tradition of keeping sheep. We mostly have Jacobs, a breed prized for their piebald fleece and magnificent curly horns. Not only do they have a distinctive look, they are easy to handle and produce delicious meat. Because of the variation in their fleece, the wool is highly sought after by knitters and weavers.

We also have three smiley-faced South Down ewes. This is a local breed that has grazed the South Downs for centuries and is historically one of the most important British sheep breeds. Keeping them company are two Herdwicks, a breed native to the Lake District. We mostly keep them just because they look so awesome!

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