Hyden’s Classic Cheviots
Paying It Forward
By Tim King — Dean Hyden, of Chewelah, Washington has been raising Border Cheviot sheep for more than four decades. And after all those years, he continues to admire the breed for its hardiness, efficiency and elegant style.
Border Cheviots, also known as the South Country Cheviot in their native Scotland, distinguishes itself from the more recently developed and larger framed North Country Cheviot. Though having distinct differences, these deep-rooted cousins are known and recognized to thrive with vigor and strength even in the harshest of conditions.
“I obtained my first sheep in 1976 as a 4-H project from my grandparents’ neighbor, Elliot Munroe,” Dean recalls. “I was not too familiar with any other breed of sheep at the time, as my family had been dairy farmers for generations, even going back to the old country in Germany. But the enthusiasm that he shared about the Border Cheviot breed made it an easy decision. Plus, I just admired the elegance and style that the Cheviot possessed.”
The lessons Mr. Munroe so generously gave to the inquisitive boy have continued to influence Dean through the decades.
“He became an amazing mentor and teacher,” Dean said. “He guided me through all the aspects of caring for and managing a flock of sheep. A lot of discussion was on looking at body conformation and introducing me to the science of genetics and outcomes.
“I can still trace back all of my ewes’ lineage to the first few Cheviots that I purchased forty-three years ago from Mr. Munroe, only bringing in new bloodlines through purchased rams.”
Good Old-Fashioned Structure and Its Worthwhile Logic
Those Munroe ewes — and the rams that Dean has brought in — have allowed him to focus on maintaining the Border Cheviot’s traditional characteristics. Those characteristics happen to be well suited to the Hyden family’s northeastern Washington farm and their grass-based shepherding.
“We breed for lambs to arrive in mid-March which enables their offspring to grow in synchronicity with the natural grass cycle for our region,” Dean said. “In order for them to convert this strictly grassland diet to flesh, they’ve been selected for important factors, such as bone structure and muscle integrity.
“Their bodies are wide-set with a good spring of rib that’s carried well back towards the hook bones (this being essential in supporting a large volume abdominal cavity and muscles associated with high forage intake).
“The back is broad and straight and well covered with muscle.
“The legs stand squarely from the body and the carriage, carried proud and strong.
“These attributes allow our Cheviots to forage and withstand the environmental conditions associated with working for their food source.
We’ve selected our ewes to give lambs that are hardy and robust at birth with an innate will to survive. With the lambs’ smaller shoulders and more slender heads, seldom do the ewes need assistance in the birth process. Even in the harshest of climatic conditions these lambs thrive with vigor and strength, a trait that in many instances has been lost.”
Dean calls his Border Cheviots traditional Cheviots. They are very much like the Border Cheviots that have been raised for centuries in the harsh climate of the Cheviot Hills in the border lands between Scotland and England.
“The Cheviot breed standards and characteristics that we work on are their hardiness and spirit, pert and upright ear set and an active and bright-eyed demeanor,” Dean says. “The face is keen and pure white, refined, and elegant. The body is predominantly low set and covered with a long dense fleece of splendid fiber.”
Border Cheviots are known for their ability to produce a valued carcass that’s favored by home cooks as well as restaurant chefs.
Legendary Cheviot Wool
The Border Cheviot also possesses the most essentially Scottish of wools, with a long history of importance in the British textile industry. Dean has striven to preserve these important traits of this truly dual-purpose breed and has structured his breeding program to provide fleeces that are sought out by hand spinners and fiber artisans.
“Our sheep produce about five to six pounds of medium fleece with a micron count in the lower thirties. This is ideal for apparels such as socks and mittens as well as traditional rugged outdoor garments such as tweed jackets and kilts,” Dean—who is a hand-spinner himself—said.
“A unique aspect of Cheviot wool is its ability to maintain elasticity when made into a garment. This resilience is a function of the unique helical crimp, or springiness, found most predominantly in the Border Cheviot fiber. Though the helical coil is the smallest part of the fiber, these little springs give wool its flexibility, elasticity, and resilience. These characteristics help wool fabric keep its shape and remain wrinkle free.”
Dean has built a reputation for his award-winning fleeces by showing them at fairs and fiber festivals. As a result, he is able to sell his fleeces, without the need for further processing, within a few weeks of shearing.
Border Cheviot fleeces tend to be lower in grease than the fleeces of other breeds allowing them to scour easer and giving the wool more of a “loft to weight” ratio.
Dean’s experience is that his profit margins are better with raw fleeces than they are with processed wool. As with most fibers, different segments of the fleece have advantages in the final outcome of a garment. With the unique attributes to a Border Cheviot fleece, he finds it more advantageous to allow the fiber artist to process their fleeces, thereby presenting them with the opportunity to use various grades of the fleece to their full potential.
Exhibition to Build Reputation
Dean also shows his sheep.
“I show my sheep at three of the major fairs in Washington State,” he said. “I show at the Spokane Interstate Fair, the Evergreen State Fair and the Washington State Fair.
“These are open class fairs with exhibiters participating from throughout the Northwest.
“Showing at the fairs is a business strategy, but also is a source of enjoyment: By showing the sheep, I gain recognition as a breeder. Potential clients like to know that they are receiving award-winning sheep and to have the assurance that our flock has been evaluated by an authority as to their soundness and breed character.
“It’s also a great opportunity to meet prospective buyers and promote and compare my breed with other sheep at the fair.
“The fairs also offer a great source of enjoyment for me as well. I get to hang out and converse about sheep with like-minded shepherds, as well as catch up with friends — some that I have known since my youth while showing in 4-H and FFA.”
The animals in Dean’s show string have the same traditional characteristics that his production flock has.
“We at Shepherd’s Bounty have chosen to raise our Border Cheviot sheep with an emphasis on an all grass diet that meets all of their nutritional needs, excluding minerals and water,” Dean notes. “I feel I have selected for traits in which the lambs mature slower, but are very efficient in converting pasture grass and forbs to meat.
“The emphasis I put on my breeding selection is first to have strong vigorous lambs at birth. Most all mornings during lambing season, I go out to the barn to witness a set of lambs that are nuzzled next to their mom, with full bellies.
“Second is conformation designed for grazing. For without proper legs, sound mouth and body structure, the lamb cannot feed efficiently on pasture.
“Third is a mature weight of 100-plus pounds at a six-month time, which is when the lambs head to market, or are selected for sale and/or flock replacement.”
Pointers on Reproduction
Dean has his March ewe lambs bred in their first fall. And they can generally be bred for the next nine to ten years.
Since ewe lambs tend to have singles — or don’t catch at all — his lambing ratio is down to around 180 percent. But he gets more lambs than if he’d waited until the second breeding season to breed them.
All ewes lamb in the barn, or in a predator-proof enclosure attached to the barn.
The ewe-and-lamb pairs are then put in jugs for twenty-four to thirty-six hours where they are weighed, tagged, and the tails are banded. They’re then returned to the barn to rejoin the flock.
Dean adds, “Other than to drench for internal parasites once or twice, the lambs aren’t handled again until they are sold or sent to market, unless they’re identified as future show candidates.”
The lambs are provided the opportunity to nurse until their mothers wean them, or they’re marketed.
There are advantages to not weaning the lambs.
“There’s less stress, as the ewes like having their lambs around. And we don’t have to go through the sometimes noisy weaning process,” Dean discloses. “I can manage all the sheep together and utilize the pasture most efficiently.
The ewes wean their lambs around August, so I don’t have to worry about drying off or milking out a ewe that’s still lactating — reducing the possibility of her developing mastitis. Since I have plenty of grass with my irrigated fields, pasture feed is plentiful.”
Their ration includes no grain or concentrates. He does include a loose mineral supplement in their diet.
Dean says one of the characteristics of traditional Border Cheviots is that the flock spreads itself out evenly, in small groups, over a paddock.
“This distinctive grazing adaptation has resulted in them efficiently utilizing all areas of a pasture. And in so doing, they’re spreading nutrients evenly throughout the field; thereby providing more productive pastures in return,” he said.
Dean raises the traditional, or classical, Border Cheviot because he likes them and because they’re well suited to his farm and its environment.
Striving for the Desired Result
He acknowledges that what suits him may not suit others.
He advises younger shepherds, “Ideally, I suggest you find a style of sheep you like. Post a photograph of it in your barn. And every time you’re working your sheep, give yourself a goal of breeding your entire flock to meet the standards of your ideal animal.”
“The attributes that I use for a model of the Border Cheviot are those of the breed from the 1940s and fifties. We call it the “classic style.” We’ve found a market niche of customers that are looking for similar, smaller sheep than the norm (or of what the industry is breeding for, especially in the modern show arena). They must be hardy and not reliant upon myriad vaccines, medications, and expensive feed additives to maintain health and vigor.”
Elliot Munroe generously helped a young Dean Hyden get started in the sheep business. Inspired by his friend and mentor, Dean has committed himself to sharing what he’s learned over four decades with others; especially young people.
Dean and his family have hosted school groups, 4-H and FFA student groups, and church groups.
“One of our more eventful episodes was hosting approximately one hundred adults sponsored through the Spokane Area Sheep Producers, Cooperative Extension, and the Conservation District,” he said. “The workshop provided information covering pasture management, New Zealand style fence building, identifying grasses, youth fitting and showing, dog herding, and more.”
Dean also co-sponsors a spinning class at the local library. Contributing to the community should be an integral part of the occupation of shepherding, he says.
“Be proud of your breed and make it a goal to help at least one other individual get started in raising it each year. Give … unselfishly to your community and those wanting to get started in raising sheep, especially youth,” he said.
You can learn more about the Hyden family’s Shepherd’s Bounty Border Cheviot flock by visiting the website, ShepherdsBounty.com.
Originally published in the March/April 2019 issue of sheep! magazine.