Monday, November 22, 2010

Biased Book Review: Running for the Hills

I have this absolutely misplaced feeling that I was meant to be a sheep farmer/angora bunny raiser/alpaca farmer/the list goes on.  I mean, come on, there was a sheep farm in my family five generations back?!  OK... I's not five direct generations. 

In that interest, I sometimes likes to read books about people-who-raise-fiber-bearing-animals.  And imagine in my misplaced way that I am one of them.  

I just finished the very well written (with intelligent humor) Running for the Hills:  Growing Up On My Mother's Sheep Farm in Wales, by Horatio Clare.

Couldn't find a  better image of the cover of the American edition, here's a photo of the British edition, slightly different title, depicting Horatio as an adorable towhead

Horatio's parents were from London.  It's the 70's, his mother Jenny wants a different lifestyle both for her and their children. They purchase a sheep farm in southwestern Wales, in the mountains near the Brecon Beacons mountain range.  Horatio's Dad does not share that vision, and he ultimately  returns full time to London, helping out occasionally.  Jenny is left raising two little boys, and and must work hard to sustain her family on the sheep farm.  She has help from Jack, a crusty and solid local retired farmer, along with other neighbors.

When they bought their farm, 100 sheep came along with it.  Horatio explains in the book that when a farm was sold, some sheep came along with it.  They had a number of breed in this original flock, mostly Welsh Mountain

which are small and hardy with thick white fleeces.  The majority of the rest were Suffolk crosses

Suffolks are black faced with thinner fleeces, had "bigger, more profitable" lambs, but these were less sturdy in the cold.  A few  other breeds were mixed in:  Badgers (a variety of Welsh Mountain), Radnors, and Speckles. 

Ram lambs are "tups," ewe lambs are "theaves." Tups were sold in their first nine months, preferably before winter to avoid feeding them when grass was scarce.  Yearlings were one year olds, mostly theaves, and were sold to farms looking to add to their breeding stock.  Their flock grows over the years.

Jenny has incredible affection for her animals; they are always fed and well cared for, unlike some of her farmer neighbors. She cares for them so much it's hard to believe that she sells them for meat.  

I emailed Horatio Clare via his website to ask him about the use of the wool.  He replied said yes, the farm did sell the fleeces:  

The story of wool in Wales is melancholy. Jack  recalled decades when it was still so valuable that the annual haul would pay a tennant farmer's rent for the year. By the time my parents got into it all the fleeces from every farm were bought by the Wool Marketing Board. You had to make sure there was no bracken or hay in it, and not too many dags, and that the sacks were sewn up in the approved fashion. In return for this they sent you a cheque, for a fixed sum per sack. The rate declined steadily with the market for wool. Sometimes there would be a spike - a particular fashion season would bump up prices - but now the cheques barely cover the cost of the shearing.

The Wool Marketing Board still exists, and the system continues as it did. They drop off new sacks each year, and still collect the valley's output from the farm where it has always been assembled. On occasion, when Mum has a particularly beautiful fleece, she holds it back to give to anyone who might appreciate it. There are rumours that it might make a comeback as an excellent source of insulation - but I fear man-made fibres are always going to be cheaper. 

As the boys age, Jenny decides to sell the farm and move to  local town.  She may still be keeping some sheep!

I know from everyone's  favorite knitting podcaster, Brenda, there there are still woolen mills in Wales operating today, and perhaps they were in the 70's, but of course the scale is nowhere what it was 100 years ago.  I hope Brenda has read this book.  Interestingly, she also lives in Pembrokeshire, the setting for this memoire.  Pembrokeshire looks pretty blowy and cold, sticking out in to the  sea like that.

Interestingly, my favorite knitting tour guide, Joyce, is leading a tour to Wales in 2011, which includes Pembrokeshire. I won't be joining in, at least not in 2011.

Horation Clare's website is: Do visit, he's published two other books since.

The British Wool Marketing Board is here.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review. I have no experience with sheep myself but I sometimes visit a former sheep farmer and she has photos of her favorite sheep on her windowsill.