Our guest blogger today is Sofie Dieu, a diverse artist who is a lover of rare breed fibres. Sofie recently visited a farm in Victoria that is having success with not only rare breed sheep, but also pigs.
As an artist, I am interested not only in using wool, but also understanding how and where it originates. Because of its beautiful texture and length, English Leicester fleece is the ideal product for the making of my artwork. I decided to go on a field trip to “see, smell and touch” what it takes to breed English Leicester, here in Australia. When asking around for ideas for the perfect farm visit, the Gypsy Pig Farm was highly recommended.
You might ask, what do Bohemian pigs and the Queen’s sheep have in common? Well, at least in Darnum Victoria, they share about a 100 acres of lush, green pasture under the gentle and professional care of Bronwyn and Michael Cowan.
So that is how I ended up knocking on the Cowan’s door. Bronwyn appears, well-grounded and ready to “talk sheep”. As for myself, having arrived from and dressed for a Melbourne lifestyle, I feel-slightly self-conscious in my fancy pants. But my worries are soon brushed off by a more practical concern: “Let’s go now to see the sheep while it is nice and sunny”, says Bronwyn. “The weather will change soon”.
Before moving to the Promised Land, I am invited to step into the shade and introduce myself. Chatting briefly about my work and my interest for wool, I am then armed with a hat, and at a brisk pace, follow Bronwyn towards the paddocks.
Located in West Gippsland in the Shire of Baw Baw, the farm was established in 1978. Starting with 40 acres, it expanded with an additional 65 acres after the drought in 2009, allowing direct access to a water source.
Bronwyn and Michael started farming English Leicester sheep two years (2015) when they purchased a core breeding group from Ethel Stephenson’s Ostlers Hill Stud. Thirty-one stud ewes with 45 "lambs-at-foot" (new lambs) and six stud rams made up their original breeding group, a flock large enough to keep the genetics of this rare breed going. An additional 50 lambs from 30 ewes the next year followed by 22 lambs from 11 ewes this year, increased the flock to its current nearly one hundred strong.
The Cowans have truly committed to preserving the English Leicester breed. At the Gypsy Pig Farm, the farming process relies on the Cowans’ cleverness who focus on well bred pigs and sheep, keeping a close eye on weather and seasons. The Gypsy Pig Farm has taken an ethical approach to their farming, using minimal chemicals on pastures and drugs on animals. When they first started farming sheep, Bronwyn and Michael built the infrastructure around their sheep’s needs as each season came. Animals go from one paddock to another on a carefully managed schedule, allowing the land to rest and naturally break parasite cycles. More plant species in paddocks make for a varied diet, ensuring healthier animals.
Each animal has its role on the farm. With the strength of their snouts, pigs will dig in the ground and eat plants from flower to root, leaving the soil aerated and ready for seeding. There are three alpaca, each assigned a sheep flock with which they bond, policing the paddock and ensuring no predator gets too close to the sheep and lambs. Since the alpacas' introduction two years ago, no lambs have been lost to predators. And indeed, when I visit the first paddock with Bronwyn, the police-alpaca gives me an authoritarian look that sets up the tone of the visit: no touch!
To prevent occasional passions and unpredicted births, ewes and rams live in different enclosures. Lambs and their mothers also have their own allocated area. The paddock is so large that part of the flock has disappeared at the far back, resting under the shade of distant trees. I notice the large amount of lush space each flock is allocated. This is as far as it gets from “intensive” farming.
The lambs, puffed with soft curly wool, look at me curiously. Under the protection of their mothers and the alpaca, they restrain from venturing far. There are lots of twins hopping around. Bronwyn points out some triplets. Rare breed sheep are renowned for multiple births and English Leicester are no exception. In more intensive farming environments, lambs stay for approximately three months with their mothers, though at Gypsy Pig Farm, they are able to benefit from staying longer.
I also enjoyed a visit to the shed where the mothers lambed last August and September. Away from the chill of winter, the lambs are able to stay inside while their mothers graze nearby. Today, the floor is still padded with straw; the wooden fences are shiny with lanolin; and some native birds have found shelter in the roof. On the back wall is suspended a sign: “Ostlers Hill Woolshed”. With the memory of Ethel’s farm near, Bronwyn and I chat for a while in the quiet of the shed.
Sixty is the average age of farmers who care for Australia's rare breed sheep. Michael and Bronwyn are doing an amazing job ensuring that these English Leicester are safe and well bred. But more, young farmers are needed to ensure rare breeds and their very special genetics are safe in Australia.
There is no need to keep my hat on anymore. The weather, as Bronwyn predicted, has turned from hot to cool. The time has come to leave. My fancy, dusty pants and I head back to the car, thinking of all the amazing, wool inspired artwork I will do.
Born in France, Sofie Dieu is a culturally and linguistically diverse artist. Sensitive to cultural cliches, she has developed a penchant for the non-obvious and what makes us unique. Multiple art prizes and award finalist, Sofie's work was included this year (2017) in Hornsby Art Prize, Sydney North Art Prize, Ravenswood Australian Women’s Art Prize, amongst others. In 2016, Sofie was one of the four artists who worked on the Camperdown Cemetery installation for the Sydney Biennale. She also co-curated « Keeping the body in mind » as part of The Big Anxiety Festival, in Sydney. Also in 2017, her work was shown during Vivid Sydney. She was recently invited to take part to the Great Alpine Artist in Residence program in Victoria. As a result, Sofie will showcase her most recent work in a solo show at the East Gippsland Art Gallery in March 2018. You can find Sofie at https://www.sofie-dieu.com/ and don't forget to search for her on Instagram and Facebook.
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