Living the good life

Article Originally Published in Daily Echo’s weekend magazine on Saturday Nov 13 2010.

Demand for Sue Cole’s luxury woollen products has never been greater. The former nurse turned small holder invites PAULA THOMPSON to meet her flock of Gotland sheep.

GIVING up a nursing career for a self-sufficient life in the NewForest was always going to be a gamble. But 28 years on, Sue Cole is living her own version of The Good Life.“I never have to buy meat and I grow all my own fruit and vegetables,” says mother-of-four Sue, 52, from Minstead. From humble beginnings with just two sheep and one cow,Sue now manages around 25 acres of land and owns a small herd of Red Poll cattle and a 45-strong flock of Gotland sheep.Initially interested in selling the meat, Sue quickly realised the sheep’s potential for wool.“I saw how much wool was wasted and wanted to do something with it,” she says.

What started as a sideline to prevent wastage, has become immensely popular. She now sells a luxurious range of soft, woollen products from scarves and teddy bears to wraps, throws, sheepskin rugs and balls of yarn.Such is the demand for her Gotland products (all in rich shades of grey) there is now a waiting list.It all started almost years ago when Sue gave up work to raise her four daughters but wanted something to “keep her sane”.“I liked the idea of self sufficiency and wanted to produce my own food,” she says. “I also had a long-held interest in soil management, fuelled, I think, by my aunt who was a member of the Soil Association. I was fascinated by the idea of creating really good pasture and rotating grazing animals.Then, after the BSE scare it became even more important to know where the food I was eating came from.“Of course this was before the idea of grow-your-own and sustainability became fashionable. Everybody thought I was completely mad back then, but now it’s taken off. It’s nice to think that I was there at the beginning.“I started off with two Shetland Sheep, but when I realised I wanted to make use of the wool as well as the meat,I started looking for something with a softer pelt.” Gotland sheep – a shaggy, grey Swedish breed–seemed to fit the bill. “They have wonderfully curly skins in lovely shades of grey,” says Sue who has bred five generations of Gotland ram on her eight-acre smallholding in Minstead.“I’ve bred not just for a quality carcass but for the quality and colour of wool I require.“I liken it to mohair or alpaca. It’s very fine which makes it easy to spin and it’s beautifully soft. It’s also a wonderfully warm wool.”

In a typical year, Sue produces between 20 and 30 lambs which she sells privately for meat or keeps for breeding. The wool, she says, is really just a byproduct of that process.“It’s a way of using wool which would otherwise be of no value. It costs commercial farmers more to shear than the wool is worth. I don’t make a profit but I love the sustainability of it.Nothing is wasted. I can do something nice with wool that would otherwise be wasted. I enjoy it and hopefully other people get enjoyment out of it too.”Lambs are sheared in September and the wool (about a kilo from each animal) is sent to the Natural Fibre Company in Cornwall to be spun, coming back as knitting wool or singleply wool for weaving.Around 60 kilos is sent to the National Wool museum in Wales where it is woven into lengths of cloth and transformed into snuggly blankets, wraps and scarves. More wool is gathered in May when Sue shears her breeding stock.“Their wool has over-wintered so it’s slightly felted,” she says.“My water is solar heated so I wait until a sunny day when it’s blisteringly hot then wash the skins in the bath. Then I hang the fleece out to dry. Once it’s dry I tear it into strips and weave it into cushions on a traditional peg loom.

Sometimes people want whole skins for rugs, so I rub salt into the backs to preserve them and then send the fleeces to Bridgewater in Fenland for tanning.”Yet more wool is sold to a local craftswoman who knits it into teddy bears for Sue to re-sell along with her other products at local markets, rural events and coffee mornings.And the best-selling item?“People love the Knit-Your-Own kits,” says Sue who is a member of local produce ambassadors New Forest Marque. “It’s lovely when they come back, proud of themselves after knitting their own scarves!”Smallholding, she says, is a year round commitment.“You don’t get a day off.You always have that responsibility to your land and to your livestock. I don’t use a tractor because I want to minimise my carbon footprint so, as I get older, it gets tougher physically.” Sue’s husband Jonathan, a doctor, fully supports her way of life.“We love it here and can’t imagine doing things any other way. It was a wonderful environment to bring up our four daughters and I feel strongly now that it’s important to educate the next generation about where our food comes from.“This is something I enjoy doing and I feel very proud to be part of a family of producers in the New Forest.”