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Thickthorne Llamas (and Gotland Sheep)

Janette Buckingham, Southland

My passion for natural coloured animals and fibre began with an interest in llama and alpaca fibres for handcrafting.

My business, Thickthorne Llamas, began in 1989 when I bought my first three llamas at auction in Christchurch. We shore the animals annually, or as the fibre grew to a reasonable length. After a time, I realised I had more than enough fibre for my needs so I began selling it, setting up a sales and display area in a disused cottage on our farm. There was a lot of interest from locals and tourists and having fibre to sell was very worthwhile. Over time, clubs and organisations were arranging busloads to visit.

In 1993, I had the opportunity to purchase a ‘package’ of five Gotland Pelt ewes and a ram, from Takaka. These sheep had been part of a large importation of approximately three other breeds of sheep. I knew nothing about this breed, so this was just an experiment, and there was no internet or Google in those days.

Within days of their arrival, in late September, the ewes had all produced lambs, mostly twins, and all of them black, the colour of the Gotland babies. They lighten in colour with age, with a few exceptions. Mainly the fleeces are light, medium and dark grey, but occasionally we get a black fleece.

At this early stage, I discovered that Gotlands tend to shed their fleece. We shore them in the November, with one fleece being so cotted, I turned it into a floor rug by washing it in the bath and spinning out the excess water in the washing machine.

Over time, I added Gotland fleeces to my range of fibre for sale in the cottage, and the interest from spinners was most encouraging. I also had the wool commercially spun to sell in my gallery, as I did with Llama fibre,. The Gotland yarn has been especially popular with knitters. I also overdye this yarn, and the colours of mid-blue, red, purple and sea-green have been very popular.

I joined the Southland branch of BCSBNZ in the mid-1990s and was made very welcome. I added my listing to the Flock Book, and this is how I was contacted, in 2004, by an agent for a Japanese handcrafting supplier, asking if I would be interested in supplying a Japanese market with greasy Gotland fleeces. After some discussion about prices, we had a deal and I have been sending Gotland fleeces to Japan, via an agent, ever since.

I currently have just over 50 Gotlands, with some to be culled when their fleeces are a suitable length for tanning. I like to keep the numbers around 40, to enable me to have enough fleeces to choose from when sorting them for Japan and the New Zealand market.

I’m often asked how I like the wool to spin. It is very nice, but as I’ve previously had large qualities of knitting yarn on hand (I had to provide a minimum of 40kg of wool to WRONZ when they spun yarn for me back in the day) I’ve had no need to hand spin any! In recent years, I’ve been knitting more and have made various items for the gallery – reversible wrist-warmers, hats, scarves, and a knee-rug using jumbo-sized knitting needles and Gotland wool roving.

The Gotlands are different to a ‘normal’ sheep. We often joke that they are part goat. They are easy to shift from one paddock to another, making me think they are reasonably intelligent. But they are also independent thinkers and not easy to drench, shear or mother-on. On the plus side, I have never had to assist a Gotland with lambing, and they never have bearing problems. Some have had foot problems in the past, but we feel they are gradually improving with better management. Pinkeye used to be a problem, but not in recent years.

Gotlands are very good mothers, are abundant milk producers and the lamb survival rate is generally pleasing. As the lambs grow, a most comical sight is to see these black babies having their races on fine evenings!!

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