Black Welsh Mountain sheep used for wool, meat on Western Slop farm
For Eugenie “Oogie” McGuire of Paonia, Colo., the love of Black Welsh Mountain sheep started with a traditional medieval cloak. “I wanted to make one instead of buying it,” she said.
In 1997, she bought one ram and five ewes, mastered the art of spinning and weaving, bought a loom, learned how to sew, and made the cloak. “It’s more accurate for the 18th century. It took me six years to weave the fabric, two more to get up the courage to cut it, and two weeks to hand-sew it.”
Now standing at 144 head, her flock of Black Welsh Mountain sheep at Desert Weyr Farm is the second largest in the U.S. and “includes 22 rams for genetic variety.”
McGuire had Corriedale sheep while in high school 4-H. Her mother, Kate Roberts, had a mixed spinners flock of Shetland, Baby Doll Southdown, American Black Belly, Suffolk, Navajo Churro and Cotswold sheep. When Oogie and her husband Ken inherited the flock in 1998 other breeds were culled as Oogie got more involved with the Black Welsh Mountain variety.
At Desert Weyr, the mission statement is “we develop and implement sustainable systems to conserve the rare and endangered animals that provide so much for us. Our primary goals are the conservation of genetic resources and promotion of sustainable agriculture systems.
“We are focused on the conservation of Black Welsh Mountain sheep and maintaining the existing genetic diversity within North America. Our small family farm produces animal products in a humane and environmentally friendly way. We provide our food and fiber animals with a healthy life … managing the existing genetic diversity within North America.”
As for the wool, “I like to work with wool from many breeds, and what we gather from the Black Welsh Mountain is high-quality and very durable, making it suitable for outerwear.” Oogie said. She also offers hand-made wool products including, socks, carded roving, 4-ply rug warp, Black Welsh and Corriedale blended roving, Black Welsh and mohair-blended roving and spun yarn. Ram’s horns are sold for making traditional shepherd’s crooks, buttons, and knife handles.
Nothing is wasted. “We even scrape out the manure from the winter feeding corrals. It is a wonderful fertilizer, popular with gardeners.”
Desert Weyr Farm regularly offers breeding quality animals for sale. According to the website, “We record our flock with the National Sheep Improvement Program and are the only Black Welsh Mountain flock recorded in the U.S. NSIP provides breeders with EBVs (estimated breeding values) for critical characteristics. We are selecting for top maternal qualities while not losing carcass and wool traits.”
The fleece of the Black Welsh Mountain sheep ranges in shades from dark to reddish black. They are the only completely black breed of sheep in the world. Originally bred in the United Kingdom, they are small, hardy, easy to handle, and are known for having well-flavored mutton.
“I decided that since I was going to spend so much time and effort on sheep, I had to love everything about them. The Black Welsh are perfect for our farm for a lot of reasons,” McGuire said, “mostly because of their dispositions and the way they’ve thrived in our pasture-based lambing production system.”
McGuire is hands-on when it comes to care. “There are no steady hired hands who have any regular hours, although we hire a crew for shearing. We also have several folks who are interested in learning about sheep who come help occasionally for stuff like vaccinations and sheep evaluations.”
Black Welsh Mountain sheep “are tough, easy to care for, and are smart with wonderful personalities. Ours have learned the words ‘open gate’ and I can point to the location where I want them to go and they will look for and find the place to move. We do intensive grazing, raising our stock entirely on pasture and no grains, so this is critical for ease of moving. We do not use any herding dogs, only guarding dogs to protect against predators. Many of our sheep have learned their names and will come when called. I don’t feed grain or other treats so the only reward they get for coming up to me is a scratch.”
As a bonus, “The meat is the best of any breed I’ve ever eaten. It stays mild and tasty even after the sheep age, which means I can cull and sell old rams and ewes and get top meat prices. That alone makes them a more profitable sheep for me.” Full-grown, a ewe will reach between 100 and 120 pounds. Rams grow to between 130 and 160 pounds.
Oogie sends meat to Homestead Meats in Delta for processing. It is sold locally through Oogie’s on-farm store, in Lizzy’s Market (in Paonia) and to restaurants via two distributors. You can also order Black Welsh Mountain sausage for supper at Revolution Brewing in Paonia.
Black Welsh Mountain sheep were first imported to the U.S. in the 1970s by breeder Tom Wyman. In addition to the original two rams and nine ewes, through the year 2000 frozen semen was imported from three other rams. The borders have since closed. Oogie’s herd is double-registered both in the U.S. and in the United Kingdom.
Oogie serves as the Secretary, Treasurer, and Registrar of the only club which has Mr. Wyman’s stamp of approval, the American Black Welsh Mountain Sheep Association.
To insure the Desert Weyr herd stays pure, Oogie said, “We do not loan rams out for breeding. We’re an export-qualified flock, but once a sheep leaves here it can’t come back for the sake of disease. They can’t be mixed. Even nose-to-nose contact with other breeds is a no-no.”
Human contact, however, is fine. “Come visit and see our wonderful sheep,” she encourages. “We take our responsibility to promote them very seriously.”❖