The Beautiful Black Welsh Mountain Sheep
An Intelligent, Cooperative Breed of Sheep
Reading Time: 7 minutes
Robin Morse, of Bankside Farm in the Snoqualmie River Valley near DuVall Washington, and Oogie Maguire, of Desert Weyr near Paonia, Colorado, both raise Black Welsh Mountain sheep.
“They are really a terrific sheep breed,” Robin, who has been raising the hardy long tailed and all black sheep for 15 years, said. “This is a wonderfully friendly, intelligent breed of sheep and their beautiful black fleeces are much in demand by hand-spinners, knitters, and weavers who prefer to work with a naturally black wool, rather than with a fiber that must be artificially dyed black.”
The color of the all black four-inch long fleeces was a primary factor when the Morse family chose Black Welsh Mountain sheep to be their breed. The fact that the Livestock Conservancy ranks the breed as threatened, due to its low population numbers, also made them attractive to Robin and her family.
“When it came time to consider which breed of sheep to raise, my husband, our son, and I all knew we wanted to lend our efforts to a rare and heritage breed of sheep in need of conservation and preservation,” Robin said.
Bankside Farm generally has between 25-30 registered ewes along with what Robin describes as “a generous number of carefully selected rams,” all of which represent genetics from at least three different UK champion Black Welsh Mountain rams.
Robin says that both her BWM rams and ewes, which she describes as being mid-sized sheep, have been exceptionally easy to handle.
“A remarkable characteristic about this breed of sheep, at least within our flock, is that they are happy to cooperate and very glad to do what we’d like them to do, as long as we have the courtesy and good sense to let them know what it is we’d like them to do and where we’d like them to go to do whatever it is we want them do and by which route,” Robin said. “We’ve always found our sheep to be extremely intelligent and unflaggingly eager to please.”
That intelligent and congenial nature includes excellent mothering traits among the ewes.
“They are extraordinarily wonderful mothers who seem to bond immediately with their lambs well before those lambs are even born,” Robin said. “I find this a particularly compelling trait that is always a wonder to witness however, many times we’ve seen it repeated with every mother and her lambs that we’ve had the pleasure of being present for at their births.”
Twinning is fairly common among BWM ewes and triplets, although quite rare, do occur.
“Black Welsh Mountain ewes quite regularly produce twins, as well as similarly sturdy single lambs,” Robin said. “The incidence of twins increases when both the ewe and the ram with whom she’s been mated are each twins themselves. They produce plenty of milk for their lambs, whether twins or singles. Triplets are far less common, though we’ve had triplets born within our flock and their fabulous mother did a wonderful job making certain all three of her lambs had access to as much milk as they each needed.”
Robin lets the ewes wean their lambs at their own pace.
“We feel strongly about encouraging our ewes to wean their lambs on their own schedule,” she said. “In doing so, we’ve found our lambs experience much less stress when it is their own mother making that decision, rather than whatever a wall calendar indicates is convenient for us. We also make sure our ram lambs are separated from their mothers only by one fence-line for the first several weeks. This, too, in our experience goes a long way toward reducing any anxiety our ewes and their newly separated ram lambs might otherwise experience and makes for much happier and healthier sheep.”
Black Welsh Mountain rams are horned and Bankside Farm gives horn quality a lot of attention. Early breeding in the U.S. flock had focused on encouraging a somewhat heavier, more substantial set of horns than that preferred by Welsh and British breeders. Since Robin always selects with the UK Black Welsh Mountain breed standard firmly in mind, she preferred not to have the heavy horns in her flock.
“Our foundation Black Welsh Mountain ram was a handsome, well-built F1 ram from imported UK champion Black Welsh Mountain semen, who had a lovely set of perfectly matched horns conforming much more closely to the accepted UK breed standard for horns, as well as having wonderful wool and a lovely temperament,” Robin said. “After another couple of years we brought in first one ram and then another from a different registered flock, but in doing so began to see some of those earlier heavier style of horns. At that point we began to select in earnest for the less heavy, more graceful, so-called tea-cup shaped horns favored by the UK breed standard. Happily, it wasn’t long before we began to see more and more of the horns we preferred, and very often the fleeces on those particularly rams exemplified the blacker, softer, yet still-resilient, and longer staple-length wool that we also preferred.”
Bankside Farm also puts a lot attention on selecting for truly black fleeces with at least a four-inch-staple length, good structure, and a particularly pleasing hand.
Black Welsh Mountain sheep that spend their days on sunny pastures develop sun-lightened tips on their fleeces.
“That pretty coppery tinge has a name in Welsh,” Robin said. “It’s called “Cochddu,” meaning reddish-brown. “It’s quite common on the tips of the fleeces of these hardy sheep who thrive in open pastures and hillsides for at least three-quarters of every year, depending on where and in which climate they live.”
“We’ve been working on minimizing any sun-lightening tendency within our own flock by providing both shelter and shade for our sheep and also by continuing to select for the blackest fleeces amongst members of our flock who also seem less prone to Cochddu, or whose fleeces develop Cochddu only on the very small tips of their nice black fleeces,” Robin said.
In preparation for spinning, Robin hand combs her fleeces.
“I find that almost all of the reddish-brown tips are almost instantly eliminated on backside of my wool combs on the very first pass. After one or two additional passes with my combs, the hand-combed true top I draw off of these combs is both very black and ready to spin — just the way I like it.”
It was the quality of the BWM fleeces and an interest in the fiber arts that brought Oogie Maguire, of Desert Weyr, to the breed. At the time, Oogie had a serious fiber arts project in mind.
“I wanted a traditional Welsh medieval black cloak,” Oogie said. “Most folks would go buy a cloak or maybe buy fabric and make one but not me. I bought the sheep, learned to spin, learned to weave, bought a loom, wove the fabric, learned to sew and made my cloak. I also learned that my idea of what was a proper cloak was not accurate for medieval times but I still love my cloak. It’s more accurate for the 18th century. It took me six years to weave the fabric, two years to get the courage to cut it and two weeks to cut and hand sew my cloak.”
“Along the way I slowly culled out the other breeds, as the more I worked with the Black Welsh the more I loved everything about them and the more I disliked the other breeds for one reason or another,” she continued. “I decided that since I was going to spend so much time and effort on the sheep I had to love them.”
“I like to work with wool from many breeds and I like to eat many other breeds and I like how many other breeds are to handle and manage but for the combination of ease of handling and management, lovely wool — for certain purposes, and wonderful tasting meat, the Black Welsh were the only breed that survived my culling process,” Oogie, who writes a blog about everything from artificial insemination to scone recipes, said.
Welsh Mountain sheep are a great meat sheep breed. The story is that the meat was much sought after by the most discerning eaters in the 19th century. In England they were particularly renowned because Queen Victoria favored their mutton, above all sheep breeds, at the Royal Table.
Desert Weyr believes that 21st Century eaters can be as sophisticated as Queen Victoria and her Royal Table. Accordingly, Desert Weyr does not market Black Welsh Mountain lamb.
“For a tasty flavorful treat sized for today’s ethical eater try some of our wonderful mutton,” proudly trumpets their website desertweyr.com.
Oogie fully guarantees customer satisfaction on all of her meat including French Rack of Mutton for $23.99/lb. In addition to her other cuts Oogie sells two styles of sausage.
“It’s a richer flavor but still milder than much of the U.S. lamb,” she said. “It is very lean and has very good levels of omega acids as verified by testing. It is hard to sell mutton but once people get over the name they love it. We provide guarantees on all of our meat and in all the years I’ve only had to replace three pieces for people who were unhappy.”
With that level of satisfaction, Oogie points out that processing costs for an 80-pound lamb are the same as for a 140-pound adult. So, selling mutton is more profitable.
“They grow more slowly in our all pasture and forage based system with no grain and I need more time for them to finish and the meat to marble,” she said.
Welsh Mountain sheep were bred to graze on pasture and eat hay and generally require no grain. They generally don’t have parasite problems, even in wet climates like Western Washington, and they don’t experience hoof rot.
Both Desert Weyr and Bankside Farm sell breeding stock throughout the U.S. Bankside Farm is one of only three USDA/APHIS/SFCP Export Certified flocks in the U.S. and Desert Weyr has experience exporting to Canada. You can learn more about the two farms and Black Welsh Mountain sheep by visiting Desert Weyr at desertweyr.com and Bankside Farm at banksideblackwelsh.com.
Do you raise Black Welsh Mountain sheep? We’d love to hear your experiences with them in the comments below!
Originally published in the January/February 2020 issue of Countryside and regularly vetted for accuracy.