17 August 2001

SURPRISEDBYBLACKSHEEPINTHEFAMILY

A new book on Hebridean sheep took four years to write and provided the author

with some big surprises. Jeremy Hunt takes up the story

WHEN David Kinsman settled down in the study of his Lake District home to research a book about Hebridean sheep he was in for a few surprises – and they were far closer to home than he could ever have imagined.

This primitive breed has its origins on the windswept island of St Kilda, but when Mr Kinsman delved into the history of "the black sheep" and its popularity as a parkland curio of the late 1800s, he found himself staring the past straight in the face.

One of the most well-known photographs of Hebridean sheep is believed to have been taken in the late 1800s and shows a man standing with a small group of ewes with an impressive four-horned tup. However, despite the black-and-white photographs wide use, no other information about the sheep or the man in the picture was known until Mr Kinsman started work.

The breed arrived in mainland Britain 120 years ago, says Mr Kinsman, a geologist who has bred Hebridean sheep for 20 years.

"It appealed for its curiosity as the wealthy Victorians, already investing in parkland estates, sought Hebrideans to graze alongside exotic species such as zebra, deer and emu."

Hebridean sheep, with their striking jet-black fleece and spiralling four-horned headpiece, were soon to be found in parklands throughout Britain. Unfortunately, within a decade of their move south, the breed had become extinct on its native St Kilda.

Mr Kinsman discovered that one of the first recorded parkland flocks of Hebridean sheep was kept at Storrs Hall, Windermere – the estate of which the authors home at Windy Hall is still a part.

&#42 Earliest photo

"It was an unbelievable coincidence but even more so because the photograph that everyone knows so well was taken at Storrs Hall in 1884. Its the earliest photographic record of Hebridean sheep."

The sheep were owned by the Rev Thomas Staniforth whose family had been well known stock breeders on their Windermere estate and ran a very successful herd of Dairy Shorthorn cattle.

Census data from 1884 suggests the man in the photograph, which appears on the cover of Mr Kinsmans book* was the estates shepherd John Mounsey Thompson.

The 240-page well-illustrated book, which has been published by the author himself, has earned praise from Prince Charles, one of the breeds strongest supporters.

Prince Charles, who established his flock of Hebridean sheep at Highgrove in Glos in 1992, describes the breed as "magnificent and curious".

Today, there are now about 5000 Hebridean sheep in the UK. The breed is no longer on the Rare Breeds Survival Trusts endangered list and, as well as its growing band of flock owners, the Hebridean has found a niche as an ideal sheep to graze sites of environmental significance.

But whether your interest in "the black sheep" stems purely from the breeds aesthetic appeal or whether you feel ready for an encyclopaedic voyage of discovery, this excellent piece of work deserves a place on your bookshelf.

It isnt a management book, so dont expect to find out how much corn to give your in-lamb ewes, but it does provide the reader with a wealth of information on the agricultural and cultural influences that have contributed towards the Hebrideans development.

*The Black Sheep of Windermere is published by Windy Hall Publications, Windy Hall, Crook Road, Windermere, Cumbria LA23 3JA (01539-446238). (£16.50 plus £4.40 p&p).