Yorkshire flock of rare breed sheep have inspired a booming yarn enterprise
Ellie Stokeld, owns the Doulton Flock of Pedigree Border Leicesters, near Stokesley. Her ethos is ‘no slaughter’ and her love affair with Border Leicesters came about after a bad accident stopped her horse riding.
“I have always been a keen horse rider and I loved competing,” Ellie said.
“I saved for a long time and bought some land to keep my horses on but I realised, eventually, I needed some sheep on the land as well to keep it sweet.
“As fate would have it, the Blue Cross charity contacted me asking if I would take three sheep that had been found by walkers in a bad way. So we got Polly, an elderly ewe and her two cross bred lambs, Bubbles and Squeak.”
Ellie said she learnt so much about sheep from her three rescue charges and although they lost Polly, Bubbles and Squeak were still part of the household when Ellie had a serious car accident travelling home from work one evening.
“I was coming home on the A1 and was near Ferrybridge when there was a queue of stationary traffic. I stopped but was hit by the van behind me.
“It sent me across the other side of the motorway, through the metal guards and down a gully.
“My car was written off and I wasn’t in a good way.”
Ellie was taken to Pontefract Hospital and the spinal injuries unit.
When she was assessed to go home, Ellie realised her accident meant the end of being able to ride.
“The doctors asked what I did with my horses and I said eventing. They grimaced and said they would not recommend it but if I had a horse which did not jog I could have a gentle ride out occasionally.”
Ellie said she was “devastated” by the news but also determined not to let it keep her down.
“I have never been one to be down for too long and I decided that I would maybe get myself a couple of pedigree lambs and have some fun showing them instead.”
So she retired her horses and let them happily graze away while she started her new adventure with her sheep.
“I had quite a few friends who knew about sheep and gave me advice on what breed I should go for and set me up to meet a lady sheep breeder at the East of England Show.
“But when we met up I realised that particular breed was going to be far too much work for me.”
Ellie said she wandered up to the ring and sat down next to “a real old farmer”.
“He was holding a really woolly sheep with a massive fleece and I asked him what breed he was and he told me he was a Border Leicester. I asked him what he was called and he said he didn’t have a name so I called him Richard which made him laugh.
“I fell in love with the breed immediately and I asked him if he had any he could sell me. He didn’t but said he was going to a sale in a few months and would buy me two ewe lambs.”
Minnie and Martha duly arrived and Ellie said that turned into a bit of an experience.
“When I first went to get them they were in a stable and the minute I opened the door they flew up the walls, jumping as high as they could.
“It took a while to get them out of the box and then when I got them home I let them out in 20 acres. I then spent the next few days trying to get near them again. Martha became quite friendly very quickly and I loved them so much.”
The following year, Ellie decided to show her “girls” but said she had very little idea of where to start.
“I did what I thought was the right thing to prepare them.
“They had massive fleeces which looked rather dirty so I decided to wash them. I wasn’t sure what to wash them with and then thought about Lux flakes which is what my mum washed woolly jumpers with.
“I got to bed about midnight having spent about four hours first trying to wash the suds out and then get rid of the excess water. They did have very white fleeces but looked like giant cotton wool balls.”
But despite that and a lack of halter training, Martha took second place and Ellie said she learnt a very big lesson – that she needed to learn how to do things properly.
Ellie also decided her flock needed expanding and visited dispersal sales for new additions.
“It just grew and grew. I had the farm and I never sell any of them for slaughter, even my ram lambs.”
She also found a mentor in Scot James Stobo, a well respected breeder who also worked with the cattle on the Queen Mother’s Estate at the Castle of Mey.
“Jim invited me to go up to Scotland and take some sheep with me. He and his wife Pamela mentored me for around six or seven years. Without Jim’s advice I would never have got anywhere.”
Under the Sobo’s tutelage Ellie’s sheep and their fleeces took championships at the Great Yorkshire Show, East of England, Lincoln and Norfolk shows.
“A few years ago I realised I needed to do something else to bring in the money and I started to sell fleeces. A few spinners I know said why not turn the fleeces into wool.
“I am not a knitter or a spinner but I decided to give it a go and sent about 40 kilos of fleece to a company in Cornwall to be turned into yarn.
“It was quite frightening, not just due to the cost but whether anyone would want to work with my yarn.”
However Ellie’s fears were unfounded, the wool sold well and she didn’t look back.
Three years later the yarn, which is now produced by Laxtons in Baildon from Ellie’s rare breed sheep, has become a big success for the Doulton Flock. “We now sell all over the world with customers in Japan, New Zealand and all over Europe.”
“People are concerned about air miles and animal welfare. Our flock is slaughter free and I have more than 300 sheep living very useful lives and helping to support themselves.”