Twanging and spreading will be all the rage today and tomorrow at one part of the famed Masham Sheep Fair, held in the county’s largest market place.
The vibrant atmosphere of sheep showing quite rightly takes centre stage at this marvellous annual show that was created by Susan Cunliffe-Lister and her dedicated team around 30 years ago. It is a major tourist attraction for the town and harks back to days of yore when annual sheep fairs took place all around the country with tens of thousands of sheep traded.
By the time you read this, Peter and Jean Conwell along with their colleagues will already have sold several fleeces that they trade over the two days on behalf of sheep owners from their Rare Breeds Survival Trust Fleece Tent in the schoolyard, where spinners and weavers come each year to purchase the quality wool they are looking for in droves.
“We will open our stall spreading out the fleeces so that prospective buyers can check them,” says Peter who, with wife Jean, has been manning the stand with other good hearted folk on a voluntary basis for the past 20 years.
“Some will be there at 8am stood waiting for us so that they can get the first look. They will pull the fleece to check its quality and the twang of the fibre to the ear tells them the strength.
“Some buyers attend Masham Sheep Fair purely for our fleece stand including a couple of French and Belgian customers, ladies from Birmingham who will come and spend hundreds of pounds, and a family from Teesside who will buy anything between six to 12 fleeces and take them back home on the bus.
“The people who originally set this stand up when Masham Sheep Fair started were Harry and Judith Storey and Malcolm Whinran. They wanted to present a place where people would come and look at rare breed fleeces and would be able to receive professional information. That’s why as well as people being involved who have rare breed sheep like us we also have spinners willing to give the benefit of their experience to others looking to buy.
“Last year we sold 135 fleeces from 31 breeds of sheep, not all of them rare breeds, and made a significant sum for the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. The spinners, weavers and whole crafts market is growing and that’s good news because it is creating demand for produce and buyers who come here are specifically looking for certain types of fleece from breeds such as Ryelands, Jacobs and Wensleydales, but also many others.”
Fashion plays its part in the spinners and weavers market, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the fleeces available will meet the demand, which is why eager buyers will aim to make early purchases.
“One year the majority of what we sell may be white fleeces and the next year they decide they want more coloured fleeces. It’s important we have a mix but we really don’t know what we’re getting until the Saturday morning. We’re here to help those with smaller flocks achieve a good price and that is the case for the Downs breeds and Longwools but we also create a niche market for those looking for wool from Hebridean, Shetland and North Ronaldsay breeds. What we are pretty strict on though is the quality and everything has to be dagged, skirted and cleaned.”
Peter and Jean have had Ryeland sheep on their six-and-a-half acre smallholding at New Grange Farm, Bradshaw near Halifax since 1998. They attend Halifax Show and Malham Show each year and enter their Ryeland fleeces to recent great success at the Great Yorkshire Show.
“I was born and brought up the seventh of eight children on Bradford Moor in Bradford,” says Peter whose career saw him specialise in surveying, particularly ecclesiastical buildings for the United Reformed Church. “My mum worked part-time in the mill so in a way I’ve gone full circle being involved with wool albeit in a small way.
“Jean and I took up Ryeland sheep as a hobby and we’ve made many friends. We’ve been lucky enough to win in Ryeland fleece classes each of the past three years, twice in the Coloured fleece including at this year’s and once in the white fleece last year. At our height we had 46 sheep but we now have just 11 – nine ewes and two wethers. We’ve lived at Bradshaw over 50 years either in the cottage we started with, the farmhouse and now the bungalow converted from a barn. We’ve moved nearly 30 yards in half a century.”
This weekend, however, the Conwells will be flying the flag for rare breed fleeces at Masham.
“The fleece stand has an important role to play as often those with small flocks need an outlet like this. There are many who are able to sell fleeces privately on mail order but this is one of the few places as well as Woolfest in Cockermouth and a few others where people can come and view fleeces from a number of breeds.”