A breed apart as family treasures its legacy

Chris Berry looks at a farm where the owners are determined to continue the proud history of a much loved flock of rare-breed sheep, the Leicester Longwool.

When respected Leicester Longwool sheep breeder, showman and farmer Alan Aconley of North Frodingham passed away in 2010 it could have spelt the end for his flock. It could also have added to the woes of the breed that is now officially classed as critically rare.

There are now just 600 breeding ewes and 60 active members of the breed society. It’s a sad state of affairs for the breed that was once known for its meaty carcase and lustrous fleece. It is regarded as one of the few truly pure breeds in the UK and its silky fibre is still in demand.

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Alan was one of the best-known names on the sheep showing circuit, particularly at the Great Yorkshire, Driffield, Malton, Ryedale and Thornton-le-Dale. It was a rarity if he came home without clutching a trophy, winner’s rosette and any number of cards.

But it wasn’t all about achieving show success. Alan cared passionately about the breed that is a direct descendant of farming pioneer Robert Bakewell’s Dishley Leicesters that were so-named in 1755 and he was a regular voice in the breed society.

Alan’s daughter Gillian Shipley, her husband Mark and Alan’s wife Ann have carried on where he left off in the show ring and Gillian is also currently vice chairman of the society.

“Dad was very successful in the show ring over many years and everyone knew him. I started showing sheep when I was 14-15 years old and have been involved for many years, but I was around more so in his last three seasons.

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“It was an emotional time when we showed without dad for the first time – at Driffield especially with it being our local show. It was also the first time he hadn’t been around to select the team. Fortunately we managed to breed and choose some really good sheep and we’re keeping up with the success he had.

“We’ve been really pleased with what we have achieved in the past two seasons and we still think of him every time we’re in the ring or picking up a prize.”

In 2011 they swept the board at Malton Show with male, female and overall champion; at the Great Yorkshire they took first place with a ram lamb that went on to become reserve male champion and were third with a gimmer lamb; and at Driffield they took second places in ram lamb and gimmer in wool classes. Not quite as good as some of Alan’s lifelong achievements, but not a bad haul for the fledgling show team. They were on their way.

“This year we’ve had an even better season. Our gimmer lamb Nina, who was born on January 15, 2011, headed up our team of eight females and two gimmer lambs. Nina was the star of the show at Driffield where she was placed first in her class, became female champion, overall champion and was also awarded the Wool Cup. She was also part of the winning group of three Leicesters. There was really no way she could have done any better.

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“We also had male champion and overall Leicester champion at Malton; and reserve champions at Ryedale and Thornton-le-Dale. We didn’t reach quite the heights at the Great Yorkshire, but we still took a fourth place in the gimmer lamb class.”

The show team of Gillian, Ann and Mark has also had a new face with Gillian and Mark’s three-year-old daughter Louise. “She’s not ready for holding and showing the sheep just yet. But she did go up and collect the trophies at Driffield Show in front of the grandstand. I’m sure dad would have enjoyed seeing her do that.”

Leicester Longwool sheep were a popular breed in the East Riding and at one time the breed society was based in Driffield. There are still a handful of breeders in Yorkshire today including Chris Coleman of Speeton, one of Alan’s contemporaries.

Alan’s father had kept the breed at Whinhill Farm, Wansford and Alan started showing them for the first time in 1975.

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Gillian and Mark presently farm across 250 acres in two locations at Glebe Farm, Brandesburton and Eastfield Farm, North Frodingham where Alan farmed. That’s where the growing flock of Leicester Longwool pedigrees and Texel X Charollais is kept. Eventually they aim to expand the sheep enterprise to 100 breeding ewes.

Unfortunately that expansion is unlikely to come from the Leicester Longwool breed although they are committed to carrying on Alan’s dynasty.

“We’re looking to build up the flock gradually. We’re aiming to make everything more viable. At present we have around 49 ewes, either Longwool or Texel X Charollais, that have been put to the tups. Our aim is to have another 18 joining the breeding ewe flock in August.

“We have three Leicester rams, two of which are homebred and we’ve bought in another from a farm near Nuneaton to bring in new bloodlines this year. We also have a new Charollais tup that we purchased from Mrs Hunter in Hunmanby.”

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Selling off fat lambs is through a combination of Dunswell Livestock Market and Dawn Carnaby at Bridlington usually around May.

Whilst the sheep take centre stage, the farming operation is primarily an arable concern. Mark also runs a farm machinery workshop and he also has a machinery parts business. They have a suckler herd of five commercial cattle.

Glebe Farm in Brandesburton was originally Mark’s grandfather’s farm and provided the location for where he and Gillian met as she worked on the farm at the time.

Historic breed dates from 1755

The Leicester Longwool’s first breed society was formed in 1893, but the breed’s history stretches back to 1755.

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The breed was originally known as the Dishley Leicester after the village where farming pioneer Robert Bakewell lived.

Breed characteristics include early maturity and fast growth; lustrous fleece. Ewes regularly weigh between 100 to 150 kgs.

The latest news from the Leicester Longwool Sheep Breeders’ Association is that they are desperately searching for rare bloodlines.

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