IT WAS a rare sight...set against the remote, beautiful pastoral landscape was a flock of unique, stunning sheep.

Heads down, nibbling the sweet grass, the Black Wensleydales stood out against farmer, Alistair Strong’s flock of Dorsets, Texels and Mules.

With only around 100 lambs entered into the flock book each year, the Black Wensleydales are extremely rare and have been placed on the Rare Breed Society Trust (RBST) watchlist.

But flourishing in the pastures of School Hill Farm at Maulds Meaburn, are a small flock of Black Wensleydales belonging to Alistair’s partner, Carol.

Carol spotted the black Wensleydale breed when at an auction in Kendal. And with their lustrous and beautiful, silky, strong wool, it is easy to see why they stood out.

“I fell in love with them and asked Alistair if I could have two and keep them on the farm. They were reasonably-priced then at £90 each and they had a lamb with them. Everyone is wanting Wensleydales now and tups are fetching about £350 to £500, and some even more.”

Carol now has a flock of around 25, which run alongside Alistair’s flock of 540 Dorsets, Texels and Mules.

Recently, the farm witnessed an even rarer sight when one of Carol’s ewe’s gave birth to a summer lamb. Lambing season normally runs between February and April, and experts say a ewe giving birth at this time of the year is virtually unheard of.

So imagine farmer Alistair’s astonishment when he discovered one of the farm’s rare Black Wensleydale ewes was about to give birth - five months later than the rest of his flock.

“It was when we were shearing last month, and the lad I had helping happened to say that he thought she was pregnant. I just laughed it off, because I thought she was a non-breeder,” added Alistair.

“It was blowing a gale, so we loaded her onto the trailer and took her to Paragon Veterinary Practice at Newbiggin, near Penrith,” added Alistair, 57, who has three children, Amy 16, Maisie, 12, and Isaac, seven.

Paragon Vet Dan Griffiths delivered the lamb safely. “It was very wintry conditions and it is most unusual for lambs to be born at this time of year, and even more unusual for this rare breed. She was a Black Wensleydale breed of which only around 50 are born a year, so the farmer was delighted to find a totally unexpected pregnancy,” said Dan.

But Carol says the lambing was ‘late’. “The ewe obviously didn’t take back at tupping time in October, November, but the tup sniffles around them so I think that this was just pot-luck.”

There is something definitely very appealing about Black Wensleydales. Their long curling forelocks and clean black faces give them a Rastafarian look which always attracts much attention. There are records of a totally black flock being kept in the early 20th Century to decorate the front field of the owners country estate!

Traditionally though, Black Wensleydales were considered unacceptable by farmers, as a black fleece was of little value. But, recently, with the increase in demand for naturally coloured wools, their black fleece is listed in the wool board schedule as one of the highest priced.

“The wool is so fine. It is really, really soft,” said Carol. “I sold a fleece for £87 recently on ebay, and have sold locks at Woolfest. The wool is much sought after, which is probably why people are prepared to pay more.”

Carol hand-washes the fleeces herself, leaving them outside to dry.”It can take a week to do one fleece. I clipped the tup Shiloh and his fleece weighed five kilos. You can quadruple the weight when washing the fleece. It is back-breaking work, but worth it.”

The Wensleydale is a very large longwool sheep, described by the British Meat and Livestock Commission as “probably the heaviest of all our indigenous breeds”.

According to the Wensleydale Longwool Sheep Breeders Association website a separate register is maintained in the flock book for coloured Wensleydales which occur naturally as a result of a double recessive black gene (this is not exclusive to the Wensleydale). Since the coloured register was commenced in 1994 the number of black ewe lambs registered with the Association has been volatile – in 1999 there were 88 registrations but these have declined in recent years.

Some white animals carry one recessive black gene and mating two such sheep can produce coloured lambs from an apparently all white flock. These lambs are registered in the coloured register and the dam and sire must also be transferred out of the white flock. When the demand for wool was at its peak it was common for black lambs to be culled to prevent the valuable clip becoming ‘polluted’ with coloured fibres and to protect the reputation of breeders. However, these lambs born out of white flocks have now become very important as they widen the gene pool for coloured breeders – in 1999 breeding rams were registered from 13 flocks but by 2009 this had declined to six flocks.

Although referred to as Black Wensleydales – the colour will vary from silver to jet black. Lambs are generally born black or charcoal grey. The darker fleeces have a tendency to ‘grey’ with age as a result of the appearance of white fibres and the tips of the staples weather to a golden brown or beige. This variation in colour within each staple is particularly valuable to hand spinners and textile artists making the wool highly sought after and of premium value.