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A Special Breed Can Pay Its Way While Preserving A Priceless Heritage
It’s great to sell heritage-breed fleeces right off the sheep
at wool fairs to eager buyers at $8 to $10 per pound.

By Richard Larson

Old Gjerpen Farm
Culpeper, Virginia

There are many legitimate reasons for choosing to raise rare/heritage breeds. This is a story about one journey on the road to rare/heritage breeds conservation. It is also a story of the much longer journey of the restoration of Leicester Longwool sheep to the U.S.

Our Old Gjerpen Farm in Virginia has been dedicated to rare/heritage breeds (sheep, cattle and chickens) conservation since 1989, the importance of livestock conservation was reinforced during a recent trip home to Wisconsin for high school and family reunions. Gone was the one-room country schoolhouse I attended for six years. Gone was the church I attended for 18 years and for which our farm is named. Also gone was my father’s big red stone-bridge barn—once the largest barn in the neighborhood.

The absence of buildings associated with childhood memories is thought-provoking and in some ways sad. But most striking was the complete absence of the many herds, including my father’s, of Guernsey milk cows, which I passed each day on my mile-long walk to and from school. Today there are probably fewer Guernsey cows in all of the U.S. than used to be in the county I grew up in 60 years ago.

Buildings can be replaced but genetic diversity, once gone, can’t be replaced.

Why Raise Leicester Longwools

The Leicester Longwool is a rare, heritage breed that originated in England in the 1700s and subsequently became popular in the colonies. President George Washington is known to have referenced the breed in several of his letters. Because of its high quality carcass and long, soft-handling and lustrous fleece, in the 19th and early 20th centuries the Leicester Longwool was used to create several new breeds of sheep in the U.S. and England. However, by the 1980s the Leicester Longwool had disappeared from North America.

Fortunately Colonial Williamsburg arranged to import 15 Leicester Longwools from Tasmania in 1990. The reintroduction of Leicester Longwools to the U.S. has been very successful. Today there are almost 700 registered Leicester Longwools raised by approximately 50 shepherds in the U.S. Leicester Longwools may be either white or colored (black or English blue).

Why do we raise Leicester Longwools? Simple: They have a beautiful lustrous high-quality fleece that sells easily; they are productive and excellent moms; they are attractive and stand out at festivals/shows; and there is an exceedingly strong demand for quality breeding stock. All of these factors combine to make the breed economically feasible.

By maintaining several bloodlines, small farms can offer one-stop shopping to new start-up operations.
By maintaining several bloodlines, small farms can offer one-stop shopping to new start-up operations.

Offering One-Stop Shopping For New Flocks Just Starting Out

We have 30 ewes (20 white and 10 colored) and 12 flock-rams. You might well ask, why so many flock-rams? Because the Leicester Longwool is a rare breed, we maintain three distinct bloodlines in our closed flock. Each year we use between six and eight rams for breeding. This enables us to specialize in offering small starter-flocks of genetically diverse, quality breeding stock.

This has in turn been an effective way of introducing the importance of heritage breeds conservation to families, and especially the youth, who can carry on this important mission. Also remember, each of our rams produces 10 to12 pounds of high quality fleece a year that markets at $8 to $10 per pound so they are earning their keep even if they aren’t used for breeding in a particular year.

Other Benefits

We know of very few people who raise sheep to pay the mortgage. If that is true then (at least for us) when raising sheep stops being fun we will hang it up. Well you ask, exactly how is raising sheep fun? We could give you many answers like: the suspense at lambing—color, sex, twins or triplets—the soft calming bleat of ewes with their newborn lambs; young sheep frolicking in crisp spring air on new green pastures; or the flock grazing contently bathed in fall colors.

For us, one of the most enjoyable sheep-related activities is exhibiting our beautiful Leicester Longwools at festivals and shows. Both my wife Donna and I were active in 4-H as kids and, I must confess, the thrill of pinning a purple rosette on one of our rams or ewes is as real today as it was those many years ago when I was showing cows and hogs at the county fair. This spring for example, we took three of our Leicester Longwool yearling rams and a yearling ewe to the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival (MS&WF). For those of you not familiar with the MS&WF, over 1,100 wool sheep are exhibited there—the largest and one of the oldest sheep and wool festivals in the U.S. We were honored to receive many top prizes there.

The thrill of winning show prizes is not just for the kids. These Old Gjerpen Farm winners were two of seven that took Champion, Reserve Champion and Supreme Champion awards in 2008 at the Maryland Sheep & Wool Fest
The thrill of winning show prizes is not just for the kids. These Old Gjerpen Farm winners were two of seven that took Champion, Reserve Champion and Supreme Champion awards in 2008 at the Maryland Sheep & Wool Fest

Exhibiting at festivals and shows is much more than the competition in the show ring. It is a wonderful opportunity to talk with the many people who stop by the exhibitor pens to admire attractive sheep. It is a great opportunity to educate the public about both our breed and the importance of conserving rare breeds. It is also an invaluable marketing opportunity.

We shear our sheep the last day of the festival/show and frequently there is a small, inquisitive crowd of people watching, asking questions and buying our sheep’s fleeces as soon as they are sheared. Marketing is as important to conserving rare breeds as it is to any other business.

Heritage Breed Conservation Is Good Business

Sustained successful marketing requires a dynamic marketing strategy. Our strategy is built around our strengths—a love of farming and the natural harmony of seasons, a basic understanding of genetics, an eye for excellence, an appreciation of the evolving fiber market, dedication to consistent quality, 20 years experience raising sheep and a willingness to share our knowledge by mentoring new shepherds. That is why, for example, we initiated the Youth Conservationist Program (YCP) 10 years ago. Every year the YCP awards registered rare breed ewe lambs, from over a dozen rare breeds, to young aspiring shepherds at the MS&WF.

A broad genetic base is essential for successful breed conservation. The more farms there are raising and selling breeding stock the higher the probability for a breed to not only survive for another generation but to also grow and become even more viable.

More information about Leicester Longwools and our farm is at www.oldgjerpenfarm.com or contact us at oldgjerpenfarm@yahoo.com.

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