Know Your Fiber: Clun Forest Wool
Posted on March 01 2023
Imported to North America in 1970, the Clun Forest sheep is a threatened breed in both Canada and the United States. In complete contrast, Clun Forest sheep in the U.K. were once the third most popular breed! Although Clun Forest sheep have undergone a decline in the U.K., they are still considered a valuable heritage breed. Read on to learn more about the history of this breed, and why their popularity is so different in North America vs. Britain.
Once home to Bronze Age settlements and hill fortresses, Clun Forest takes its name from the English town of Clun in Clun Valley, right near the Welsh border. Clun and the surrounding areas were originally settled by the Cornovii tribe of Celts, followed by Romans, Saxons, Danes, and finally the Normans. Unfortunately for the Normans, and later the English, the Welsh were fairly certain that the land belonged to the Welsh. Given that Clun and the surrounding areas were claimed by the Welsh kingdom of Powys after the Romans left the area, they had a point. Once the Normans invaded during the 11th century, Clun Castle was built to help defend against the Welsh. Various wars between the Welsh and the English would continue in other areas along the Welsh/English border right up through the 15th century, with occasional Welsh raids occurring in Clun. For the most part, though, Clun was considered too rural to be of any importance after the 13th century, allowing farmers and shepherds to get along with their lives in relative peace.
Sheep have been raised in the highlands of Clun Forest since before recorded history and, like most English sheep breeds, they are descended from landrace ancestors that were well adapted to their environment. It is entirely likely that, along with their human caretakers, Clun Forest sheep permanently altered their environment through grazing – certainly, there is little forest in the Clun Forest anymore. Some early agricultural historians noted that Clun Forest sheep had white wool and white faces. That is quite the change from today’s Clun Forest sheep, which have white wool and dark brown faces. The same historians noted that they believed that early Clun Forest sheep interbred with the now extinct Longmynd and Long Mountain breeds, which perhaps gave them those same dark brown faces.
Clun Forest sheep were destined for even more interbreeding. Raised as a wool and milk sheep for centuries, the late 1700s brough with it agriculturalists who made it their mission to improve upon native English sheep breeds. The most common improvement was to create bulkier, more muscle-y types of sheep called dual-breeds, which were used for both meat and wool. Bred with Southdown sheep, the native Clun Forest sheep became the Improved Clun Forest sheep, and by the 1800s were a superior meat sheep that could be fed on little more than grass and turnips.
By the end of the 1800s, Clun Forest sheep were gaining a reputation throughout England as a quality dairy, wool, and meat sheep. The wool was popular for making wool flannel, a fabric that has its origins in Wales during the 16th and 17th centuries. The true popularity of Clun Forest sheep was yet to come, however. When English farmers began having a problem selling their own grain in the 1880s due to less expensive imported grain, they found it more profitable to raise sheep on their fields. They did not, however, find it cost-effective to continually breed their own stock. This created a once in a lifetime opportunity for farmers that were already raising Clun Forest sheep – they began to breed Clun Forest ewes for farmers in eastern England. Rapid sales of ewes meant that they started to run short of ewes in their own flocks, so they would buy ewes of varying breeds from the nearby moorlands and “grade up” the sheep. Which is to say that they would breed the moorland sheep to the Clun Forest rams, breed the offspring with Clun Forest Rams again and again, until what you had were basically more Clun Forest sheep with just a smidge of moorlands sheep genetics. Interestingly, this created subtle changes to the breed that improved even more their ability to thrive on grasslands.
In 1925, the first Clun Forest Flock Book was published by some of the largest Clun Forest breeders in England. Unlike other native breeds whose popularity declined during WWI and WWII, Clun Forest sheep continued to thrive. By the 1950s it was the third most popular breed in England. So, why does it remain a threatened breed in North America?
The answer mostly lies in the timing of the first Clun Forest sheep arrive in North America. In 1970, a farmer named Tony Turner of Nova Scotia, Canada became intrigued by the Clun Forest’s success in England. Although the winters are cold in Nova Scotia, spring, summer, and fall create the excellent grasslands that Clun Forest sheep need to thrive. Turner imported thirty-nine Clun Forest Sheep to his farm from England. A few years later in 1973 Tuner sold his first breeding stock, from which all Clun Forest sheep in Canada and the U.S. are descended. Turner was optimistic that Clun Forest sheep would become as popular in North America as they were in England. Although this was not to be, the breed did gain a good reputation as a very productive milk sheep for cheesemaking in North America. The number of Clun Forest sheep in North America increased little by little but was held up by lack of large numbers of breeding stock. A few more flocks were brought in over the next couple of decades, but by 1999 the U.S. and Canada both stopped allowing live sheep into their countries. This, in turn, had a negative impact on available breeding stock and has meant that although the numbers of Clun Forest sheep in North America continue to rise, they have done so slowly and unsteadily. Consequently, the Livestock Conservancy had listed Clun Forest sheep in North America as a threatened breed.
At 25-33 microns, Clun Forest wool is a fine-medium fine wool. It has a staple length of around four inches and a fairly good crimp, making it easy to work with for spinners, and is likewise good for felters. The resulting yarn is fairly dense, and low luster, making it good for any crochet or knit projects that require good stitch definition. It is also comfortable to wear right next to the skin, making it a good wool to use for clothing and accessories such as caps, scarves, and cowls. Weavers who also spin may be interested in trying to recreate their own traditional wool flannel fabric with Clun Forest Wool!
Want to give Clun Forest wool a try? It can be challenging to source, but here at Northwest Yarns & Mercantile we get it in seasonally from a North American Clun Forest breeder and farmer. Pick some up while it is in stock!