Wowie Dunnings, inspired by a visit to her sister’s sheep, now successfully raises and showcases her Southdown and Oxford Down sheep in Fifehead St Quintin
When Wowie Dunnings visited her sister in Lincolnshire in 2013, little did she guess how a few sheep would transform her life.
‘My sister has sheep in Lincolnshire. We visited for Easter ten years ago and I just got stuck into lambing and thoroughly enjoyed it. At that time I had been through nine operations and the work with the sheep just took the pain away and my mind off things. On the way home I asked my husband if we could have a few sheep … and that’s how we got our first Southdowns!’
Wowie now has a small flock of 34 on her smallholding in Fifehead St Quintin, just outside Sturminster Newton. But why Southdowns?
‘My sister had them. They are a really good breed for beginners – they are friendly not flighty, and the mums are good, they just pop out the lambs! They are the smallest of the Down breeds, with the best fleece.
‘We also have Oxford Downs which are the largest of the Downs. They are so gentle – definitely the gentle giants. And they have the most amazing fleeces. When it comes to choosing sheep I always say: “go for the ones you like the look of – because you’ll have to stare at them every day!”
‘The Southdown is no longer a rare breed – it’s the Rare Breeds Survival Trust success story. All breeds of Down sheep, including the Hampshire and Dorset, originate from a South Down.’
It is the oldest of the sire breeds in the UK and as the name suggests it originates from the native sheep which roamed the South Downs in the south of England for many hundreds of years. Known for its woolly face, it is sometimes called the teddy bear sheep!
‘The Oxford Down is on the At Risk register, however,’ says Wowie. ‘There are just 3,000 ewes and 3,000 rams. Oxford Downs are big – but so quiet! And they are good for cross-breeding lambs, too. We always lamb in December because we enjoy showing.’
Wowie’s show record is impressive. Again, it was all down to her sister.
‘She suggested I should give it a go and see how I got on. I kept looking at the sheep and wondering, and then I had a lovely little lamb. So I entered her in a local show. We bought the kit and the trailer and I spent three hours carding* her fleece! I showed the ewe lamb and mother and also entered the novice class as it was my first time showing. I got first in both classes. Then the judges said I needed to go into the champions class – and I won that too!
‘The following year we went to the New Forest Show with a full team and we did really well there. The sheep look wonderful with their Wolfhanger green and yellow coats. This year we’re doing nine shows in all.’
A lot of preparation goes into showing animals – if it’s three hours for one sheep, how long to card a full team? But of course there’s more to the process:
‘I always think the preparation starts when you choose which ram to put in with the ewes,’ says Wowie. ‘But the preparation for a show starts about 10 days before. We’ll wash them all, to get the lanolin off. And I have an actual sheep hairdryer! It’s not hot and blow-dries them perfectly. It’s really good – you can blow leaves with it as well!
‘The carding can take 90 minutes per sheep, so if we’re showing 12 sheep we start three days before; even longer for new lambs.
‘Then we put their coats on to keep them clean – though not if it’s hot weather. Then we have to gather all the material and information for the pens – if they win rosettes we like to display them, and we always put them on social media.’
Wowie makes it all sound easy but she says showing is not without its challenges.
‘Halter training can be hard. Lambs don’t like the halters and throw themselves on the ground! Some people keep them on a tight rope, but that can panic them. What we do is put the halter on the lamb and then just cuddle them, perhaps coax them with a bit of feed. We just stay there with them until they are relaxed and ready.’
Wowie and the Wolfhanger flock have a terrific track record, so what advice has she got for a first timer showing?
‘Enjoy it and don’t worry! It’s hard work but definitely worth it. And don’t forget to walk around the show to see what else is there. Ask questions from other people who are showing – these are the people you’ll learn from. Don’t think what you are asking is silly. People like to help. I met a lovely lady last year who also has South Downs. I told her to come and find me this year and I’ll show her how to trim a sheep.
‘Also, read up on the show etiquette! There is definitely a right way of doing things – I don’t like to see white coats unbuttoned for example.’
And what advice does Wowie have for the public?
‘Buy wool! I spoke to a couple at a show recently, and they had no idea how dire the industry is. When people ask about wool I always ask them what they are wearing? Most of it won’t be wool. A modern fleece will be made of recycled bottles or something. It’s also amazing how little some people know about farming – Jeremy Clarkson has done a hell of a lot to promote agriculture and say what it’s really like. TV shows are a great opportunity to educate the public on farming issues.’
Look out for Wowie and the Wolfhanger team in the Sheep Section, and be sure to say hello!
- Carding is basically combing the fleece, making sure all the wool fibres are untangled and aligned in one direction
**Because we know you’re wondering: when her younger brother was a toddler he couldn’t say Isabelle-Alice so plumped for Wowie instead. It stuck, and she’s been Wowie ever since!