Growing up with Ryelands - Published in The Ryeland Handbook

By Simon and James Donovan


Looking back we cannot remember life without Ryelands, our first memory is of a handsome little ram who’d been lent to try on our assortment of cross bred ewes. Mum and Dad were so pleased with him and his offspring that he was bought and aptly named woolly.

It was at Templeton Y.F.C show in Pembrokeshire that we then met David Lewis showing his Ryeland sheep and discovered our woolly ram was a Ryeland. Shortly after the show we visited the Arberth flock and bought our first registered ewes. We all remember the day in November 1994 when the two in lamb shearlings were delivered. The ewes had been shown that summer and were still looking very smart.

The following year we bought another two in lamb ewes as we’d decided to gradually build up a small Ryeland flock. Now we had our Ryelands we wanted to have a go at showing.

Our first trip out was in 1997 with a ram lamb to Tivyside show in Cardiganshire. As we unloaded our single sheep from the borrowed trailer we heard a voice shout, “ Is that a Ryeland? Come along side us, there’s a spare pen”. We didn’t win a rosette but we’d met Pennie and Brian Mee, and our taste for showing had been wetted.  

The following year we were a bit more adventurous and entered several local shows. We’d had a set of triplets that looked very promising so we each chose a lamb to show. The lambs started to win rosettes blues and yellows, no reds, but it was very satisfying to bring back a rosette to display on the pen from then on we were hooked.

The next year we had shearlings as well as lambs and with encouragement from the local Ryeland breeders we entered a couple of bigger shows including Pembrokeshire County Show, where we won our first breed championship with one of the triplets, our shearling ram Dolwen Uriah.

We’d learnt a lot in our first two years, all about good teeth and feet and the little bits below the ram – he must have two even stones and good pasterns, well off the ground to be able to do the job he’s meant for. The teeth should meet the pad not over and sharp. He needs a strong straight back and a good back end to pass onto his lambs. As an old breeder told us round the show pens recently, “ its very easy to breed faults in but it takes many more years to breed them out ”. All this together with good Ryeland characteristics gives you plenty to think about and plan for.

The moment from when the lambs are born we select what we feel will make a show animal, checking it has the Ryeland breed points, we like the dark ears which are either woolly backed or covered with fine white hair and a nice dark nose. It must have good conformation, walk and stand well and have a quality that makes is stand out from the rest.

The sheep are washed about three weeks before showing, a job best done on a sunny and breezy day. Mums tried various soapy treatments including lux flakes, stergene, dreft and an assortment of shampoos. Its then our job to get the lambs used to the halter and provide mum with frequent cups of coffee whilst trimming.

In the year 2000 we entered our Ryelands at the Royal Welsh show. This was something of a military operation, involving more than one trip to get caravan, sheep, the four of us plus our dog set up for the show week. It’s exhausting, but a more than worthwhile experience, which we have repeated every year since and hope to continue to do so.

At the Royal Welsh in the year 2000 a Young Sheep handlers competition was started, and we were placed 2nd and 3rd in 2002 and 3rd and 4th this year in our respective age groups. Something we are very proud of and something we will always remember.

Every summer except for the Foot and Mouth year 2001, we have spent our summer holidays exhibiting the sheep and have made many friends and been given endless tips from breeders young and old. In a relatively short period of time we have achieved a lot, but there’s been lots of work behind the scenes.

To discover the sheep’s bloodlines we’ve gone back through old flock books and spent time at shows and sales just looking at and talking about Ryelands. Talking to other breeders about what makes a good animal and hearing about stock that’s done well in the past has helped us learn more. We particularly enjoy helping on the Ryeland breed stand with Anne and Ken and meeting other people interested in Ryelands.

The Ryelands produce wonderful cute and cuddly lambs but being born a pedigree Ryeland doesn’t automatically make it a suitable animal for registering and breeding with. Breeders need to be critical when choosing animals for registering, especially ram lambs whose confirmation and breed points will be carried on for many years. Maybe a controversial point from young Ryeland enthusiasts but we feel it’s the way forward for improving and preserving the quality of the Ryeland breed for a healthy future.

Showing is the ultimate opportunity to enjoy your sheep, competing with other breeders in our own classes will help maintain and improve the standard since Ryelands with faults such as a bad mouth, poor feet or breed faults should be placed down the line. This is so important when the animal representing the breed goes through to compete at the interbreed level.

It would be good to see younger members coming out to judge at some of the smaller shows, we’d like to see a mentor scheme for introducing those with a keen interest into the world of judging. We are sure there must be others like ourselves who’d like to gain the experience necessary to judge the breed in the future.

We have lots of happy memories of our Ryelands, they are friendly sheep, easy to handle and don’t suffer from that wandering nature. Ours like to see home and when put in the fields away from the house they will often be found waiting by the gate to get back within sight of the yard.

We mostly help with the routine sheepy jobs at the weekends but we really enjoy helping at lambing, even if it means staying up late at night waiting.

In this the centenary year maybe some thought should be given to maintaining the breed characteristics and as the Ryelands have scored so well in the National Scrapie Scheme the opportunity to exploit the Ryelands potential for scrapie resistant genotype rams.