Preserving an old breed at Old Gjerpen Farm

CM-MR-2-Preserving 1by Sally Colby
When Richard and Donna Larson’s children headed off to college, the couple sold the horses that had been part of the farm and chose a species that both could manage easily.
“I’m a farm boy, she’s a city girl,” said Richard, who grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. “The compromise was to get something small that Donna was comfortable with, and that would allow me to do some breeding and showing.” The Larsons chose sheep, and although Richard hadn’t raised sheep before acquiring Leicester Longwools, he has studied the breed extensively and enjoys working with and showing the best of his flock.
The Larsons’ Old Gjerpen Farm in Culpeper, VA is named after the Gjerpen Church in Norway where Richard’s family farmed for centuries. The farm is currently home to 40 sheep — 20 ewes and 20 rams. Richard admits that it’s an unusual ratio, but there’s a reason. “The Leicester Longwool is a rare breed,” he said. “We have three distinct bloodlines.”
To start their flock, the Larsons purchased Leicester Longwool sheep from Colonial Williamsburg. “They did the original importation (of that breed) around 1990,” he said. “I wanted to close the flock, but in order to do that, I needed diversity.” Williamsburg’s A.I. breeding program involved the use of imported semen that represented the Riverside, Beechwood and Ravenswood bloodlines from New Zealand. Richard was satisfied these bloodlines would allow him to maintain internal genetic diversity.
Richard says Leicesters tend to be late breeders, and his ewes typically don’t lamb prior to Feb. 14. “That’s the cutoff to show lambs at the Sheep and Wool Festival,” he said. “We breed all of our ewe lambs and all of the ewes have lambs by their sides, so I only bring yearling rams.” Nearly all of the lambs produced at Old Gjerpen Farm are sold for breeding stock. “We have orders for more ewe lambs than we produce in a year. That’s been true even during the downturn in the economy. I sell 13 to 18 rams each year.”
The Leicester Longwool is known for its fleece, and the Larsons’ flock has produced top-quality fleeces that entice buyers in both the United States and Canada. “We developed a reputation for providing great fleeces,” said Richard, noting that fleece quality is one of about 10 factors he looks at when it comes to selecting breeding animals.
As a long wool breed, Leicester fleeces grow rapidly — about one inch/month — so they’re shorn twice a year. “We shear the entire flock in late April/early May,” said Richard. “We shear the rams for the second time in September, just before we start breeding, for heat control. Then we shear the ewes again around early January to get the perfect fleece off before they come up to the barn and start lambing.”
Characteristics of Leicester Longwool fleeces vary across the breed, with some sheep having an open fleece and others a tighter fleece. “What’s uniform across all fleeces is very high luster and an extremely good handle (how the wool actually feels in one’s hand),” said Richard. “It’s a relatively coarse wool, so it isn’t worn next to the skin.” The most common uses for Leicester Longwool fleece include felting, sweaters, tapestries, weaving and hand-spinning. Richard noted that the Leicester has a nice carcass, but is slow-growing so it doesn’t fit well in a commercial lamb operation.
Richard says there is a notable difference in fleece quality between white fleeces and natural colored fleeces, and that many sheep are born very dark and turn lighter shades of grey with age. But both white and black sheep are shown the same way — straight from the field, and with only as much work as it takes to remove bits of hay and bedding from the fleece.
The Leicester was the first improved breed in Europe, thanks to the work of British agriculturist Robert Bakewell who is considered the founder of the breed. Richard explains that prior to the Civil War, the Leicester Longwool was one of the dominant breeds in the nation, particularly in the south. Records of correspondence between President Washington and Thomas Jefferson indicate that each of them had imported Leicester rams from England.
“After the war, the breed was pretty much decimated,” said Richard, “but the Leicester Longwool is one of the foundation breeds for more than 17 of the current sheep breeds in the United States. Each ‘improved’ breed has an advantage over the Leicester Longwool — faster growing, larger frame and other desirable traits. But the Leicester fell out of favor and there were none in the U.S. in the mid-1900s.” That changed around 1990, when Colonial Williamsburg imported Leicester Longwools from Australia to maintain historical accuracy, and that’s how the breed was re-introduced to the United States.
Old Gjerpen Farm was awarded Best Fleece in Show for white longwool at the 2013 Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, which is one of the shows at which Leicesters can compete. Richard noted that this is the ninth consecutive year that one of their animals has received this award. In the fleece show at the same event, Old Gjerpen Farm was awarded first place in the natural colored long wool class.
Visit Old Gjerpen Farm online at www.oldgjerpenfarm.com

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