SEMI WILD: It is unusual to pick up a Boreray lamb as they are best left to their own devices
SEMI WILD: It is unusual to pick up a Boreray lamb as they are best left to their own devices

Bowes couple Liz and Chris Redfearn keep one of the rarest breeds of sheep in the UK. Editor Trevor Brookes met them and their flock.

ON a perfect late summer’s day in August 1930, the 36 inhabitants of the tiny island of Hirta, west of the Outer Hebrides, left their homes to move to the Scottish mainland.

It followed the death of a young woman, Mary Gillies, from appendicitis and pneumonia and the stark realisation that she may have lived if not for her isolated existence.

Their animals went with the islanders and keeping with local tradition they each left an open bible and a small pile of oats in their houses before shutting the doors on a remote, tough and windswept way of life.

They also left something else. The flock of sheep on the nearby but hard to access island of Boreray were abandoned to their fate.

But the incredibly hardy breed survived and 40-odd years later, half a dozen of them were exported to start a breeding population.

Bowes smallholder Liz Redfearn explains: “Boreray is a rock – you can’t land on it. If you wanted to get the sheep off, you had to throw them off and pick them up from the sea. The weak ones would just get blown off and so that kept their numbers down. The tups will fight each other so only the strongest survive. But they brought a few ashore.”

The descendants of that small group are now registered with the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. They are also classified as critically endangered.

Mrs Redfearn and her husband, Chris, keep 49 of them. It’s a sizable chunk of the total population of about 700 Boreray sheep, which are the descendants of the now extinct Scottish Tan Face with some infusion of Hebridean Blackface.

The couple, who moved to Bowes nine years ago, bought their first one in 2012.

Mrs Redfearn says: “We’ve got three acres here and wanted some sheep. I do this as a hobby and I couldn’t do it commercially, so bearing that in mind we went to Cockermouth and saw some Boreray. I thought it would be lovely to preserve the breed, so that’s how it started.”

Bowes is known for having some of the worst weather in Teesdale but even this year’s Beast from the East was no match for Liz’s sheep.

“They’re really hardy and can stay out all year. It’s very rare to bring them inside. They had no problem with this winter’s bad weather. The first year they lambed in the snow.

“I just love them. They are semi-wild so it’s best not to interfere with them and is unusual to be able to pick up a lamb like this one,” explained Mrs Redfearn as she stroked a lamb that was born at the beginning of last month.

“I’ve got the most beautiful tup,” she adds, pointing to a proud-looking ram across the fence.

Most animals are creamy white with black, tan or speckled markings on the face and legs and sometimes on the body and shoulders. A few are dark – just like Mrs Redfearn’s fierce-looking tup, Black Forest Mars, who was bought from a breeder who Liz describes as the “guru” of Boreray.

The breed also naturally sheds its fleece.

“On the island they didn’t get sheared,” she says.

They also lamb quite easily and provide good meat, which the Redfearns describe as “nice and gamey”.

The area around Bowes is traditional Swaledale sheep country, although there are Herdwicks too.

“The locals think I’m mad but have been really helpful,” says Mrs Redfearn, who is a retired voluntary sector worker. “Since Chris suffered a stroke in 2013, I could not have coped without their advice and help. The village of Bowes has been brilliant but when I first bought the breed I used to see people stopping and looking at them.”

Their wild nature can also mean the breed is a handful for sheep dogs.

“Normally, sheep go into a huddle when they’re rounded up. These ones just scatter. You can see the confusion on the dogs’ faces,” she says.

The couple, both 61, try to keep their flock, which has the handle Fernvale, as natural to the breed’s characteristics as they can. Although they’re not being bred for commercial gain, their fleeces provide a nice little earner for the couple.

Liz says: “You can get some good money for them because the fleece is rare – with other breeds sometimes it costs you more money to shear than you get for it.”

But Liz’s love affair with Boreray sheep means that her flock is quickly outgrowing her land.

“It does look like I will have to reduce their numbers so if anyone is interested in keeping a few, we’d like to hear from them,” she says.

For information, call Liz Redfearn on 01833 628151.