I never know what might be coming to me; or perhaps to you, next...
Sometimes the back story is important. And as I introduce you to Second Skins; this is one of those times. So; go and have a loo break, get yourself a cup of tea, chai, a G&T or whatever it is you like to kick back and relax with; and read on...
My smallholding involves me in those activities that enable me to connect with a wider, universal energy, that grounds me, and in which I find that sense of harmony and balance that is intrinsic to being in the state of yoga. When I started with sheep, many years ago, they were a tiny flock. I didn’t want to breed, so I took on retired girls as lawnmowers with personality, to live and graze with my equines. I looked after them, became absorbed in them and attuned to some of the rhythms of shepherding. I let them all live out their natural life, or I brought it to an end with my vet, when I felt another winter would be too hard on them. That was over 15 years ago and I have, just recently, lost the last two of my Kerry Hill ex-breeding girls: Kev’s Ma and Granny.
I now breed and show my Herdwicks. When I started with these I purposefully chose top notch quality girls (and boys), to produce sheep that other people would want to buy for breeding, for pets (because they’re super cute), to manage the grass, for smallholder hobby breeding but definitely not for food. Hence any that are unlikely candidates for the Great Yorkshire Show, I sell. And I vet those homes – thoroughly.
When I started breeding I promised myself that none would go to market or auction and none of them ever have or ever will. Equally, none have gone to the abattoir and never will. The usual procedure in the event of death is that a carcass, a body, must be collected for disposal in accordance with DEFRA regulations. Individual cremation is an option, but that is cost prohibitive for most people, including me.
All my sheep live a good life, and they either stay or move on to wonderful homes in small settings where they will be appreciated for all their idiosyncrasies. Because no two sheep are the same. I will take back any of them at any point in their lives. Breeding, for me, is a responsibility I take very seriously.
In 2019 I showed several of my best lords and ladies and I did very well. This year there were no shows to speak of and that placed me very much on the back foot. Finding homes requires people to see the sheep, for me to be able to chat with others at shows and engage with people who are interested. Lockdowns and all the different tiered restrictions made this impossible in 2020.
Nonetheless, I have a small and select network and I sold several to existing contacts and a fantastic new family came forward and bought several more. Sadly, the sale of Baxter, one of my winning ram lambs from 2019 didn’t work out, so I have kept him for another year. But, he has no job and it troubles me that he will probably be unsettled...
But I digress... probably because this is the difficult bit: having to talk about my boys.
the difficult part
There were three boys this year that I knew would not make the grade as breeding rams. I believe that only quality stock should be bred from - vigour ought to be maintained and as a shepherdess, improving and developing breed qualities in one’s own flock is a source of great pride, addiction and painstaking care. I don’t have enough land to keep all the little souls I breed and the boys were gorgeous but they were not top grade. I took the extremely difficult and painful decision to cut short their lives, in the field where they had been born, grown up, naturally weaned and known nothing but love. They spent their last moments eating treats and being fussed. My friend James was with me. We stayed with them from beginning to end.
I am a former vegetarian of 20 years who began to eat ethically produced meat, fish and dairy when my son developed a restrictive food allergy as a child. But I had never eaten anything that I had bred so this was entirely new territory. Absolutely terrifying new territory.
However, if animals are not being sold commercially then a licensed slaughterman can come to the animal in its home environment. Serendipitously I discovered that one such person lived in my village: Paddy. He asked me how and where I wanted to do it. He didn’t take over and he was sensitive, allowing me and James the opportunity for prayers.
We saw it as disrespectful to simply incinerate their beautiful woollen skins and so we kept them. Thus began the curing and tanning and the creation of the skins on this page. We both, and particularly James, researched every method, scoured the internet and spoke with numerous people about the whys and wherefores of producing hand-crafted skins.
It was only going through this process that I woke up to the appalling waste that is produced from butchering animals for commercial sale. I felt it showed such a lack of respect that I wanted to do something. And that was the start of what can only be described as a unique and bespoke arrangement with Paddy. A man who is methodical and precise and now brings me a small number of selected skins every week. Paddy is called to ’fallen stock‘ - animals that have become injured and must be humanely destroyed - so all types of skins arrive at my little tannery.
a labour of love
There is an enormous amount of labour involved in curing, trimming, tanning, softening and cleaning skins. But I find it mindful work, full of gratitude, reverence and appreciation. It is an experience I cannot easily describe because I would not in my wildest imaginings have thought I could do it, let alone want to. There is a communion with the spirit, not just of the animal whose skin I am working on, but of a wider connection to the cycle of life and death and the intrinsic and harmonious energy and flow of the universe.
This type of product is not for everybody, but many yogis use sheepskins for meditation, giving thanks each time they use them. For others, the choice of using skins is a considered one, as it is for me. A choice seen as bringing some sustainability and a more holistic approach, to the respectful rearing of animals for consumption.
For those who appreciate hand crafted products that respectfully extend a life once lived, please contact me. All of these items are bespoke and unique; if there is something you are particularly looking for do get in touch; because I never know what might be coming to me, or perhaps to you, next...