Leicester Sagas—Joan the Bold

Spin-Off winter 2015

Those of you who have spent time with me in the last seven years have probably heard me mention my very special sheep, Joan. I know each of my thirty sheep on sight, but not all have names or interact with me on a daily basis. But greeting Joan with a pat or a hug each day has been my happy practice for years now.

Finding Joan in the pasture.
Joan was born on pasture in May 2008. Here she is on day one–clean, fed, and ready to bounce.
Joan and Kate on a cold January day in 2010. Here, Joan is about four months pregnant. Photo: Deirdre Carter
Joan and Kate on a cold day in 2010. Joan was about three months pregnant. 
Joan and one of her many cat friends.
Joan and one of her many cat friends.

Many flocks have what is often     called a leader ewe that acts as a bit of an ambassador between shepherd and flock. (In fact, Icelandic leader sheep are kept as a separate genetic line within the breed.) My dear Joan is a born leader; she’s quick-witted, observant, and quite bossy. She came into the world that way and I’ve never met another sheep like her. She also loves cats.

Some people might take issue with the idea of a “smart sheep.” From my experiences in working with flocks of different breeds, I am amazed at how much the behavior and social patterns of sheep can vary. Joan, self-appointed flock princess, oversees all the activities in her realm in true Border Leicester fashion. I’ll tell you about one of her more interesting and helpful activities…

Joan has a shrill alert call that she only makes when something is amiss. If a sheep jumps a fence or is ill, she starts pacing and calling to us. During lambing time, I know if there is a ewe in labor before I get to the barn because Joan has rung the alarm. I’m lucky to have her help!

So, when I found out that a picture I took of Joan on pasture would be on the cover of the winter Spin-Off, I was pretty excited.

Leicester Sheep article from Spin-Off winter 2015 by Kate Larson.
Leicester Sheep article from Spin-Off winter 2015 by Kate Larson. The photo featured on the first page of the article is from Ross Farm.

I wrote an article for this issue about one of my favorite topics: “Leicester Sheep: A short history of a modern longwool.” These wonderful breeds (Leicester Longwool, Border Leicester, and Bluefaced Leicester) have changed and evolved over time as they’ve adapted to new environments and purposes. So, I wanted to pair each breed description with a profile of a specific flock. Our choices as shepherds can dramatically impact how a flock looks, their health and habits in just a few generations.

The article includes profiles of three amazing flocks, which I’ll include below. I also asked Bluefaced Leicester breeder Robina Koenig about her flock and what she looks for in these special sheep.

Tumble Creek Blues
Bluefaced Leicesters in full fleece at Tumble Creek Farm in Bend, Oregon. Photo courtesy of Robina Koenig.

IMG_3472-001Robina Koenig

Tumble Creek Farm
Bend, Oregon
Robina has been raising Bluefaced Leicesters in central Oregon since 1996. The Tumble Creek flock was developed using US genetics as well as UK bloodlines via artificial insemination. When it comes to fleece, the flock is selected for “outstanding softness and handle, staple length and luster.” Robina says, “Blues have maternal traits, carcass quality, and desirable fiber to talk about for pages. These are the animals that do well in the show ring and whose traits should be passed to future generations. For my flock, I like both white and natural colored for fleece sales, rovings and yarns. But an important part of the BFL flock is their gentle personality, calmness, and curiosity. Several times I have walked through my flock as among friends for inspiration.”

I’ll be using Robina’s fibers in my 2015 Leicester workshops. You can find her fleeces, rovings, and dyed fibers on the Tumble Creek website.

Where to find Leicester fibers:

Windy Ridge Flock – Leicester Longwool breeders in Leicestershire, England

The Ross Farm – Leicester Longwool breeders in Pennsylvania, USA.

Marsh Creek Crossing  – Border Leicester breeders in Minnesota, USA.

Little Smokey Bluefaced Leicesters – BFL and BFL crosses in Saskatchuan, Canada.

Summer Grazing: featuring Alvina and Joan


Border Leicester sheep are wonderful grazers, becoming ever more proficient as they mature. At first glance, they may appear to nibble the forages indiscriminately, but they are actually feeling the plants with their lips and selecting what they want to eat. This isn’t as obvious when they are out on lush pasture where everything is tasty, but is easier to see when they are on rougher forage. I love to watch (and hear) them carefully select and munch at speed. Though it’s hard to hear in this video, there is a lip-smacking noise that the sheep often make as part of the selecting process. Listening to thirty sheep making this little pop, pop, pop noise all at once is impressive!

In this video is little Vina at three months, followed by Joan, a professional grazer if I ever saw one! They are in the back corner of a pasture that is over-mature (as happens when haymaking is late due to a wet spring/summer), so there are plenty of weeds, which the farmer regrets, but the sheep eat them with relish. Those of you in my local knitting and spinning classes will have probably heard tales of Joan’s noble ferocity and gallant nature. She’s also a bit piggy. Vina is her granddaughter.


I am using portable fencing to create small paddocks within the pasture. You can see the movable posts on the far side of the paddock. Each day, the sheep get a new strip of grass, because as we all know, grass is greener on the other side. This keeps them moving forward and reduces the area that they regraze.

A yearling Horned Dorset hanging out with the Leicesters.
A yearling Horned Dorset hanging out with the Leicesters.


Here they are at about six -weeks old, learning to graze and follow the group to pasture.
Here they are at about six-weeks old, learning to graze and follow the group to pasture.


Counting Sheep

Spring has sprung—and the lambs are bouncing! I have spent much of the last few weeks in the barn. I’ll still spend (too) much of my time with the sheep in the next month—not as a vigilant midwife, but for the sheer pleasure of watching the lambs grow and learn and play.

Jane has done well in her first few weeks of motherhood.
Jane has done well in her first few weeks of motherhood.

There always seems to be one or two lambs in every bunch that loves to strike a charming pose for the camera—Retty is the girl of the year. You can see her here on the left. Marian isn’t more than a few minutes older, but likes to fuss over her smallish sister.

Tess had beautiful twins again this year—meet Retty (left) and Marian.
Retty again—I can’t get enough of this girl!

Spring forward.

Here in Indiana, we should already be seeing glimpses of spring by now, but alas… This winter has been especially cold and snowy, so we are all anxiously awaiting warmer weather. I typically schedule my ewes to lamb when the grass will be ready to graze, so they should start to arrive in mid-April. While we await their arrival, I posted a video of the lambs from last year. Nothing brings warmth and cheer quite like bouncing, joyful lambs—enjoy!

For more smiling lamb pictures, check out this post. 

Seeking Autumn


With the first hints of turning leaves in the air, I start to relax. The smell of autumn is a welcome reminder that the long, busy days of summer and early fall on the farm do draw to a close. The farm has been a flurry of activity this year. We built a new barn for the sheep this spring and have been renovating fields and pastures. The lambs born this spring, which you can see here, are growing and are also enjoying the cool evenings.

This is what I usually get when I try to take pictures of the lambs.
This is what I usually get when I try to take pictures of the lambs. Here is Erlend, who is refusing to stand three feet away from the camera and strike a charming pose.
Gerald is much more calm and kind than his namesake.
Gerald is a more calm and peaceful fellow than his namesake in Women in Love.

Due to the pasture renovations, most of the sheep are in the new barn this fall. It is big and airy and sunny, but they would much rather be out of doors. Luckily for them, we have a bumper-crop of Giant Ragweed this year. In the evenings, I drag a dozen of the six-foot weeds into the barn, to the great pleasure of the captive flock.

Gerald and his friends are out in a separate pasture and are enjoying the cool evenings.

Sheep Sept13-002
My dad and grandfather renovating a pasture.

We are trying a variety of new forages in this pasture renovation. My dad is a Research Fellow at IUPUI as well as a farmer, so these on-farm trials are the result of much study and thought—as you might expect! This field was the first cleared on the farm toward the end of the 1800s—a bit late for this area in Indiana. Sitting adjacent to the house and barns, it has always been used for the farm’s horses. I found a horseshoe that was turned up by the tillage. My grandfather said, based on the shape, that it probably belonged to a horse my great-grandfather Urbane called New Deal. This seeder was one of Urbane’s purchases and the owner’s manual, which is still tucked inside a toolbox attached to the hitch, has detailed instructions on how to connect it to a team of horses. It was very sophisticated when new, and still does a great job. It makes a distinctive, antique sound when in use, mostly due to chains that drag on the soil surface to partially cover the seeds.

More to come.
Renewed and revived. The sheep will enjoy the fruits of this effort next spring.

Gifts of Springtime.

The last few weeks of my life have been full of bouncing, baby lambs. Here are a few of my favourite pictures so far:

Lambs_2 5_12_13
The lambs are about a week old and went out to pasture for the first time today. What an adventure! Here are Izzy’s twins, Erlend and Kristin.
Lambs_3 5_12_13
I’m not sure what is happening here, but I loved the picture!
Lambs_5 5_12_13
Tess is enjoying her first crack at motherhood. She has done very well!
Lambs_6 5_12_13
After all of the ewes and lambs had gone into the barn for the evening, I found this little one fast asleep in the grass. It was a very long day.
Lambs_1 5_12_13
New friends.

Naked sheep.

Three bags full. This clip will yield about 200 lbs of wool.

Shearing day. The flock started this week as fluffy, wool-laden beasts and are now sleek, shockingly white, and shiny. The sheep actually quite like shearing day. Our wonderful shearer, Matt Kennedy, sits them on their rumps and quickly shears them. Matt then lets them roll off the shearing mat, leaving a huge pile of wool behind. My sheep usually walk themselves back to the holding pen to join the rest of the flock. What happens next is of great delight to any shepherd: they ruminate. Sheep who feel safe and contented ruminate (a more delicate term for chewing their cud). It is a blissful and meditative state. So, they spend the rest of the afternoon with sleepy, half-seeing eyes, chewing their cud and satisfying itches formerly inaccessible through their full fleece. And they sigh. A lot.

Sheep + Heat = Unhappiness.

Gerald is not happy.

As Indiana makes its way through another week of excessive heat warnings, my sheep are beginning to wilt. We didn’t have a drop of rain at the farm for most of May and June and the pastures have been dry and unproductive.

The sheep were not happy with the situation, but tried their best to remain positive by learning new tricks—unlatching gates, knocking all five hanging grain feeders off the fence twice a day, etc. Clever Jane (see final picture) was involved in all this tomfoolery, no doubt.

Mutiny being hatched around the watercooler.

Now that we have had some rain, heat in the upper nineties has promised a very humid week. This morning, I moved the sheep to a new pasture with a large, shady tree near the woods. As the sun sets in the afternoon, deep shade from the woods moves towards the pasture to offer our wooly friends some respite.

A lovely old Ash to investigate.

But, they are still not pleased, as you can see.

Sue is simply sad.
Jane peering suspiciously out of the corner of her eye.

Wherein Tess of the d’Urbervilles meets Jane Austen.

Photo by Christa Tippmann

I often name my sheep after characters in the books I am reading at the time they are born—Gudrun and Gerald from Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence, Jude and Sue from Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy, and Marcel is named after Monsieur Proust, of course! As a huge Thomas Hardy fan, I also have a Tess.

I recently had an article published in the new issue of Jane Austen Knits (Interweave Press Summer 2012) about Leicester sheep during the Regency period, and I included a picture of Tess!

Tess is one of my most beautiful ewes with strong Border Leicester characteristics. She has a pronounced “roman nose”, or bow-shaped head, typical of both Border and Bluefaced Leicesters. She has a curly, lustrous fleece and a sturdy stance.

Tess at 2 months old.

Unlike Hardy’s heroine, my Tess is convinced she is not only the master of her own fate, but everyone else’s as well. She guards the other sheep in her group and does her best to lead them to the greenest pastures.

Tess at 9 months old. Yes, she is actually sticking her tongue out at me!
Tess in January 2012. Haughty as ever.

Jane Austen wrote a letter to her sister, Cassandra, in 1798 that included news of their father’s flock. “. . . I am likewise to tell you that one of his Leicestershire sheep, sold to the butcher last week, weighed 27 lb. and 1/4 per quarter.” Sheep carrying the Leicester name in Jane’s day were undergoing changes that would influence the as yet uncharted field of genetics for generations. A Leicestershire farmer named Robert Bakewell (1725-1795) began improving the sheep on his farm in the English Midlands. Bakewell developed a new breed, which he called the Dishley Leicester or New Leicester, through his own system of selection, now called Line Breeding. Bakewell would eventually become one of the most noteworthy figures in the history of animal husbandry.

I just love learning about the long and circuitous history of the sheep that graze outside my windows as I write. I can imagine Jane Austen looking up occasionally from her work to see her father’s flock grazing on the grounds of their home at Steventon Rectory.

Photo by Christa Tippmann

I designed Mrs. Smith’s Tea Cozy to accompany my article, “Leicester Sheep in Jane Austen’s England.” Using my own handspun Border Leicester for the pattern was very exciting! Both shades are natural color. The white wool is actually from Tess, because it was just more fun that way! I based the pattern on Regency era pinballs, or pincushions. You can see some great examples in the Victoria and Albert Museum collection here and here.