Bless the Woolly Maggots

Writing for the Spectator in 2013, George Monbiot tore a strip off the UK’s collective ovine population, maintaining that sheep have done more environmental damage than all the building that has ever taken place. A pretty hyperbolic, sweeping statement to be fair and one with which I could not agree on the basis of where is the evidence? However what annoyed me most was how he referred to sheep. He called them woolly maggots. As a sheep farmer, I felt the need to come to my flock’s defence but as all sheep farmers will know, events soon overtook, as they do, and I never got around to challenging not only the offensive term but the whole premise of his argument.


The interesting thing is that the term woolly maggot stuck with me and to my amusement and delight it morphed in my mind from something repugnant to something endearing. Endearing as in oh bless, the sweet woolly maggots have got into my veg patch again and have trampled on or eaten every green thing in sight.

And so as I sit here during lull-before-the-storm phase of shepherding, I give thought to just how much my sheep have influenced my life. I have just had my Southdowns scanned (8 singles, 28 pairs of twin and 4 sets of triplets) so I know that come April we will be bringing 76 baby woolly maggots into the world from where they will stomp forth and continue to destroy Mr Monbiot’s environment and my veg patch.

Most obviously my sheep provide the wool without which my Southdown Duvets business would not exist; allowing me to transform their greasy lanolin-coated fleeces into luxury duvets, pillows and mattress covers which I sell internationally right from the farm. Our wool is a miracle fibre exhibiting physical characteristics that we humans cannot replicate in a laboratory. Naturally flame retardant, warm, hypoallergenic and capable of wicking moisture away thus reducing the disabling effects of night sweats. In short, perfect for a comfortable, healthy, safe, nights’ sleep.

Also readily apparent is the fact that each year the ram lambs which I cannot keep (you cannot maintain all of them) provide me with outstanding meat; Southdown lamb is known for its depth of flavour. The fragrant, tantalizing smell of roasting lamb on a Sunday morning is so much part of my family’s history and tradition with the pleasure of knowing that we will sit down as a family to enjoy good food and memorable times.

But that’s just the beginning and without consciously engineering it, I realise that my lounge bears testimony to my intensifying relationship with my sheep and their wool. I recently re-carpeted the house and it never occurred to me to even consider a synthetic carpet – it was going to be wool or nothing. My two formal chairs upholstered in a deep red/orange look fantastic with my creamy/ivory wool throws draped over their backs – again wool from my own flock.

The one wall sports a lovely almost 3-dimensional wool picture created by Katrin Eagle, a most talented artist and friend who like me has a passion for the fibre. She worked off a picture of my farm, sheep in background and autumnal flame coloured maple trees in the foreground, the different coloured and textured wools blending and vibrant.

And then there is my sheepy draft excluder – a row of plumb fluffy woolly maggots with black faces and beady eyes, not quite identical but clearly all related. This little flock of 8 ewes can never fulfil their intended role in life wedged up against a drafty ill-fitting door. My black Labrador, Oscar, showed way too much interest in them and least he chewed them up, I just allow them  sit on the back of the wide brown leather sofa, a pride of place they seem perfectly at home with.


But possibly my favourite woolly being is my needle felted snowy owl which sits between two ceramic cats[1] on my mantle piece – an impressive bird with a wonderful back story. The owl was crafted by a Xhosa lady named Vivienne who lives in a tiny village in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Vivienne and many women of her community are part of the Ncedeluntu charity which is putting into practice the hand up not hand out philanthropic philosophy and model is very simple. The manufacturers of my Southdown duvets donate woolly waste which I get out to Vivienne and her sisters. They then felt like mad producing a whole menagerie of little woolly animals – sheep, goats, giraffes, cows, zebras you name it, they felt it. These are then sold to softies like myself but increasingly to commercial groups where they make lovely corporate gifts and handouts and my duvet customers are thrilled when they find a little felted sheep in their bedding parcel. The upshot is Vivienne and Co have promoted themselves to the financial status of independence. I have got to know these women over a period of a decade and I can say that the improvement in their financial circumstances is dwarfed by the advancement in these women’s emotional, social and psychological well-being as a direct result of their financial sustainability. The Ncedeluntu ladies now walk tall, heads held high and they make proud eye contact with all they meet. When they gather in the local community centre to spend a morning with their needles and wool to create a zoo of cute things, the street rings out with the sound of their collective singing and harmony and the whole village knows that the fab femme fatales are felting!

So yes in short, I appear to be surrounded by sheep and wool and I know I could do a lot worse. So now with the nights and early mornings still very chilly, I will snuggle into my merino wool base layer and venture out to check on my woolly maggots in the hope that one day Mr Monbiot will come to appreciate the bigger picture. Yes, sheep no doubt have changed our landscape but that landscape is a lot greater and consequential than merely fields, fences and farm gates.

[1] Modern day version of the owl and the pussy cat – I am very broadminded and acknowledge that the conservative notion of the standard unit family no longer exists.

[i] I wonder what the diminutive term for a particularly petite maggot is? A maggotling as in puffling?

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