There are many benefits to keeping Derbyshire Gritstones. In general terms they are a hardy, self-sufficient breed, capable of converting marginal land into a good commercial sheep.
No exceptional attributes can be claimed by the Gritstone as a producer of meat when compared to the terminal sires of Texel or Charollais however, it does compare very favourably with other hill breeds.
The Derbyshire Gritstone produces a clean, lean meat carcass required by the retail trade as well as high class, prime quality mutton which, being clean has a long shelf-life.
The Gritstone is a quick grower, and one attribute the breed can claim is its ability the fact its lambs develop quickly and mature early to a good carcass length, and on the hill have been recorded ready for the market from 68 to 104 days (10 to 15 weeks) with liveweights to 40.35kg and carcass weights to 21.34kg.
The accepted maturity of the Gritstone lamb in most hill flocks is to between 17.25 and 18.5kg dressed weight in 16 weeks, with a carcass to 21.34 kg in 10 weeks on lower marginal land. Wether Iambs kept-on can often command a good trade at Christmas.
The breed's lambing performance, coupled with the Gritstone ewe's reputation as an exceptionally good mother, means the Gritstone is a reliable meat producer on some of the UKs most challenging terrain.
In more recent times the Gritstone has been crossed with a wide range of terminal and lowland sires to enhance its meat producing qualities - most commonly being crossed to a Texel or Charollais ram.
Derbyshire Gritstone wool is of very high quality and is consistently successful in fleece competitions across the country and has claimed champion fleece twice in the last 7 years at the Great Yorkshire Show - the biggest agricultural show in the country.
The wool board judges regard the Derbyshire Gritstone fleeces so highly because it is so clean, free from kemp or dark hairs, with a good staple and lots of crimp and style.
While most hill breed fleeces are used for the production of carpets the finer fleeces of the Derbyshire Gritstone can be used for hosiery, Worsted yarns and knitwear.
There are also a growing number of craftspeople keen to use such high quality wool from native breeds to give their products a fantastic finish as well as a provenance based unique selling point.
The wool board typically define Gritstone wool as:
Fleece Weight: 2 - 3 kg
Staple Length: 8 - 10 cm
Micron Range: 31 - 33
To find out more visit the British Wool Marketing Board website.
A true-to-type Derbyshire Gritstone fleece possesses a unique soft velvety handle-quite distinct from other breeds. The features below are what a wool man would expect to find in a typical Derbyshire Gritstone fleece. This assessment is given from a manufacturer's point of view, that is, the value of the fleece to the textile trade.
A fine fibred dense crimpy staple of approximately 8-10cm in length and free from grey fibre, kemp, and dirt.
Proceeding down the back he will expect to find a fibre getting slightly coarser in quality although in some cases the quality will hold all the way down to the flanks.
The britch will give the coarsest wool in the fleece. Any impurity such as kemp or grey will certainly show up in this region.
A wool-sorter will certainly be on the look out for a weak staple where fibre breakage would occur in the course of manufacture. This is usually brought about by some illness or lack of nourishment in the sheep.
The average yield of Derbyshire Gritstone wool is 68% — i.e. out of 100kgs of greasy wool 68kgs of clean scoured wool will be obtained.
Gritstones have been used for a number of years to improve the quality of many breeds - whilst it is not written down anywhere it is known that many rams have been purchased across the UK to be used as crossing tups to improve a range of characteristics in other breeds.
Using a Gritstone ram will:
Add body, size and power to a flock
Reduce the presence of horns
Improve the fleece quality of many hill breeds
Better define face and leg colour
Gritstones can also be crossed to Blue Faced Leicester to create the Derbyshire Mule.
Derbyshire Gritstone x Texel
Gritstone females crossed with a Texel ram create a very sound commercial sheep.
The Polling Factor
In the 1980's the Derbyshire Gritstone began to play an important role as the polling factor on other breeds of horned hill sheep.
The purpose of polling these sheep being twofold: a) to to reduce and eradicate the problems of headfly damage and b) to meet the head skinning requirements of the EEC slaughter regulations. Where tradition retains the local horned breeds with their natural hardiness, the Gritstone ram began to be used as the polling factor.
To this day the Derbyshire Gritstone continues to provide the ideal genetic material as it is polled in both sexes, lives under hill conditions, and is the ideal colour. Though the emphasis on the polling of sheep didn't become prominent until the 80s, some flockmasters in the north of England had been using Gritstone rams with success on their native ewes for many years and many continue to do so today with the demand for Gritstones now spanning the length and breadth of the UK.
The reasoning polling became evermore important was due to the fact that headfly damage is costly, not only in its treatment, but in its wider effects. Affected ewes are ill-tempered and refuse to suckle their lambs with a resultant drop in the lambs' growth. This naturally affects the sale price, particularly of store lambs and buyers will usually expect to pay less for sheep which show signs of headfly damage.
Headfly damage is caused by the sheep, irritated by the flies, rubbing and scratching themselves to make open sores and wounds at the base of the horns. The flies then feed on the blood and sweat of the wounds. The problem peaks during July and August.
Polled sheep do not have the same susceptibility to the problem and, whilst their horned brethren are wasting their time rubbing their horns against the bracken stalks to ease the irritation, they are happily able to go about their business of producing and rearing healthy Iambs. The advantage of polled heads in the abattoirs is quicker throughput and consequent cheaper handling of carcasses.