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Balwen Welsh Mountain

Balwen Sheep - Category 4, At Risk on the RBST Watch list

Balwen Sheep Society and British Coloured Sheep Breeders Association

The De Dwr flock of registered Balwens at South Yeo Farm East; Flock number 313

When trying to decide on a native breed of sheep that would suit our needs, we were immediately taken by the attractive little Balwen from Wales. We wanted a versatile rare breed that was ‘different’, pleasing to look at, small and easy to handle, whose wool could be used for spinning / felting and whose skins could be made into lovely rugs. Each registered flock is given a flock name by the Breed Society, usually Welsh in origin; ours is ‘De Dwr’ which is Welsh for ‘South of the Water’ from our farm name ‘ South Yeo ’.

The Balwen fleece is black but the tips fade throughout the year to a deep chocolate brown; when they are shorn in the spring, the black under-wool is revealed once more. Well marked registered animals have a white blaze on the face running from the poll of the head down to the nose, four white socks, and a half-white tail. Other variations of these colourings – fewer or missing socks, no white in tail, broken blaze etc – mean the animal cannot be registered or bred, but they make excellent eating lamb with a small carcass that is more than made up for by an exquisite succulent flavour. Rams have classic curling horns while the ewes are naturally polled.

There are 102 registered breeders in Britain and fewer than 1500 breeding ewes known to the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. To our knowledge there are only 3 other Balwen breeders in the Southwest, most flocks are still based in the mountains of Wales. Balwen sheep are often mistaken for Zwartbles, a breed from Holland which is much larger and has big mule-like ears – not that we’re biased...

Balwens are excellent mothers, having very few lambing problems but are inclined to be a bit flighty if not regularly handled – hailing back to their hardy mountain dwelling roots; fields need to be well fenced.

Balwen ewe with newborn lamb

We manage the sheep with minimal need for medications through using careful stock management techniques. We manage the sheep in groups and move them from field to field every 10 days to help break the worm cycle. We run a closed flock which means that once our foundation breeding stock was purchased we have tried not to bring any more animals on to the farm, helping to prevent the potential for importation of pests or disease. An exception is the rams; we buy in new bloodlines every couple of years to prevent in-breeding as each year the best ewe lambs are kept on to add to the flock. We quarantine and closely monitor the new arrival before introducing him to the ewes. We currently keep around 50 registered breeding ewes and replace some each year with the previous year’s ewe lambs in order to constantly improve the flock.

Balwen Lambs

Breed Standard taken from the Balwen Welsh Mountain Society:

The base colour should preferably be black, but dark brown or dark grey is acceptable. An unbroken white stripe should run from the poll of the head to the nose. The lower two thirds of the tail to be white. A small quantity of white is acceptable on the lower jaw but it must not extend below the top edge of the breastbone. Males must have black noses and no white is allowed in or on the ears. Males must have four clearly defined white socks. A white sock must not extend above the hock or the knee. All males must have horns.

Selection of rams - Balwen & Kerry Hill

As for rams, but some faults are allowed on a sliding scale of points. Females should ideally have four white socks. (In order to be fully registered females must have at least two clearly defined white socks.) Some black is acceptable within the white sock for the current time. Females should have black noses. No horns are allowed on the females

Balwen ewe lamb

Animals which conform to the breed standard are inspected and registered by the Breed Society's inspectors at annual inspections usually held in Wales. Each registered animal is given a unique number and white ear tag and recorded in the annual flock book along with details of its dam and sire. Balwen lambs can only be registered if they are born to registered parents, even if they are well marked. We have been very pleased with them and they will continue to live here at the farm for many years to come!