by Nancy Zeller of Long Ridge Farm
CVM/Romeldale Sheep – A Breed Apart
I first learned about CVM/Romeldale sheep from an article written by Laurie Ball-Gisch for The Shepherd magazine in January 2002. I was raising a small flock of sheep but looking to commit to one breed with both preservation and fine wool in mind. And so began my instant fondness and affection for the rarest, most endangered breed of sheep in North America today. By May of the same year my husband and I brought home a starter flock from Ohio.
CVM/Romeldales offer a wonderful gift to both shepherd and fiber enthusiast. They are a complex blend of colors, patterning and distinctions within the breed. Once you understand their inherent qualities the options are endless both for raising a flock and fiber work.
The hardest thing to explain to the inquisitive person wanting to know what kind of sheep we raise is when they ask “What does the CVM stand for?” I always wish I could come up with a clever line but instead all that rolls off my tongue is “California Variegated Mutant”. They wince a little as the word ‘mutant’ forms on their lips and I quickly explain how the name came to be.
The Romeldale was developed in California by A. T. Spencer early in this century. Spencer purchased the entire contingent of Marsh New Zealand Romney rams that were exhibited at the 1915 Pan American Exposition in San Francisco. He bred these rams to his Rambouillet ewes, with the goal of improving both the meat and wool qualities of his stock and they became known as Romeldales. Much of the establishment of the Romeldale breed was accomplished by the J. K. Sexton family during the 1940s and 1950s. The Sextons selected the sheep for high rates of twinning, maternal ability, and non-seasonal reproduction. Soft handling wool was also a priority, as was fleece weight and a grade of 60s to 64s. For years the entire clip of the original Romeldale flock was sold to Pendleton Mills.
Romeldale sheep are white, but during the 1960s, colored lambs appeared in the breed. Glen Eidman, a partner of the Sextons, became interested in these sheep and line bred them for several generations, further selecting for fleece quality. He referred to this group of sheep as California Variegated Mutants, usually shortened to CVM. The classic color pattern of the CVM is the badger-face, a light body with a dark belly and dark head. This pattern creates a range of shades of color on a single fleece. Selection has increased the range of variability in fleece colors to include gray, black, brown, and moorit. Unlike many colored sheep, CVM/Romeldales will not fade with age, but rather darken from birth to their first year. The other dominant trait in this breed is that, as the sheep ages, it’s wool gets softer. These two traits alone set this breed apart from all others.
We coat our entire flock year round to protect the fleeces from the elements. Sun will lighten the tips and change the color of the entire fleece once blended during spinning. The fleece tips become brittle and felted from the sun, fluctuating temperatures, rain, ice and snow across the seasons. Hay chaff is another bane to the fiber producer and coating sheep saves the majority of the fleece from contamination. Our flock spends from late May through September on pasture which is the easy season for us and the sheep. But during the late fall through the winter our flock lives in an open barn and we feed high quality hay to them twice a day.
I am sure you have seen charming pictures of a sheep at the hay rack looking over the back of another sheep with a big mouthful of hay which is sprinkled all over her neighbor’s back and neck! It’s when I most love the flock coated. I make coat changes about 4-5 times a year. As the fleece gets longer the coat gets tighter. In order to protect the fleece from felting while also keeping the sheep in a coat with a reasonable fit, I regularly watch each sheep as they need to be refitted. I wash and mend the coats after each change and store them for the next coat change.
We shear our flock in early spring. If they are lambing, we shear a month ahead of the due dates. There is stress during lambing and it shows itself as “wool break” in the fleece. Shearing just before lambing will put the stress line at the tip of the fleece the following year rather than an inch or more into the fleece if shearing occurs after lambing. Shearing day is the highlight of my year as a shepherd. Shearing takes place in the big barn which has a smooth plywood floor. We have a back area that we corral the sheep into and clean the front area where the shearing takes place. As the sheep move through the shearing they receive their annual vaccinations and we put a fresh coat on each. To keep them comfortable for the shearing we withhold hay and water on shearing morning. Once they are sheared, coated and put in another holding pen they finally get to eat hay again. Some years, such as this year, cold temperatures were with us and so we increase the hay feeding for a few days after shearing to allow the flock to produce extra body heat until they readjust.
Annually, each sheep grows an average of 6 to 12 pounds of wool with an average yield of 55-60%. Fleece should be bright, dense and uniform from front to britch. Staple length averages 3 to 6 inches with a Bradford count of 60 to 64. The crimp is well-developed, giving the wool a full, slightly crisp hand. The wool is soft and can be worn “next to the skin”. Truly, it is wool developed with the hand spinner and fiber artist in mind…..easy to spin….wonderful to work with. Handspinners find that the wealth of shades in each fleece opens up many possibilities for the creative use of natural colors. The fiber comes in white, gray, black and brown, often with multiple shades grown by a single animal.
Uniformity of a single fleece is important but within the flock there will be varying fleece styles. In our flock we have three distinct lock formations. We have a delicate lock with a tiny crimp, a longer lock with a wide open crimp and a dense lock with a fine crimp. Each formation is beautiful. Some of the sheep have a lower micron count than others with an overall flock range from 19 to 28.
When looking for a CVM/Romeldale fleece to purchase I would be sure the fleece is clean, free of kemp (hair which is not a desirable trait), has a uniform staple length (3-6”) and crimp and has a nice overall appearance. The CVM/Romeldale fleece judging card places 35 points for clean fleece weight (yield), 10 points each for color, soundness, crimp, staple formation and staple length and 5 points each for staple evenness, freedom of fault and handle/luster. Although I have won ribbons for CVM/Romeldale fleeces over the years, I have also had beautiful fleeces that didn’t appeal to the judge. It is difficult to view a fleece at a show when it is rolled up in a clear plastic bag but you can see enough of the fleece to know if it embodies the above points. If you are attending a show seek out breeders ahead so you can meet them and ask questions.
With purebred registrations at less than 300, the American Livestock Breed Conservancy lists the CVM/Romeldale in Critical Priority Status defined as: Fewer than 200 annual registrations in the United States and estimated global population less than 2,000. The CVM and Romeldale breeds have never been numerous and the list of breeders in the United States numbers fewer than 40. CVM/Romeldales are a fine breed of sheep, whether your interest is to raise them, breed them, or to purchase a fleece or yarns and rovings for your fiber dreams. They truly are an American breed with class deserving conservation and recognition.
Photos © Nancy Zeller.