Producing Your Own Sheepskin
You can have your own sheepskins made into luxurious rugs and other items, which can add a very worthwhile profit to your sheep enterprise!
Usually, the skins are left behind at the abattoir. They are then shipped overseas for curing (or tanning) and made into products – many of which will be re-imported back into the UK!
Which breed of sheep?
Most breeds of sheep will produce a woolskin that can become a desirable luxury item. The only exceptions are the hair breeds of sheep, such as the Dorper and Wiltshire Horn, and those with a very long staple such as the Lincoln Longwool and Wensleydale.
The most highly prized sheepskins are often rare breeds especially those with natural colouration, such as the Jacob, or the Shetland (see left), which has one of the finest fleeces of all sheep breeds.
Many of the Hill and Mountain breeds tend to have a rather bulky fleece of coarser quality, often containing brittle white kemp, or hair, and are unlikely to produce good skins.
Selecting the best skins
The best skins come from younger sheep, as fleece quality tends to deteriorate as the sheep ages. Lambskins are wonderfully soft and supportive, making them ideal for babies and the elderly.
Check the sheep’s fleece carefully before it’s sent to the abattoir - it’s vitally important that the skin is in good condition, or you will get a poor result and will have wasted your money. Damage to the skin caused by injury, disease or parasitic infestation will spoil the finished item, so reject any with imperfections.
Second-growth wool naturally occurs in autumn as lambs and adult sheep respond to the cooler weather. They shed some of their summer fleece, which is replaced by new growth, but you won’t necessarily notice the transition from new to old, so, it is advisable to only have skins tanned from sheep slaughtered before the middle of October.
Wool break is a condition where the fibre is weakened close to the skin. This can be caused by illness or following a stressful experience, such as transportation. It can also affect ewes at lambing, and is not always obvious until there is some re-growth. Any such skins should be rejected.
Also be aware that many marking fluids used by the shepherd or at the abattoir may be impossible to remove, even in the solvent degreasing process in the tannery.
Notify the abattoir
Once you’ve selected which sheep have skins that are suitable for processing, let the abattoir know you want the skins returned. Expect a small charge to buy the skins back from the abattoir – this will depend on current market prices.
The abattoir can give you a commercial document to use for transporting sheepskins to the tannery (or you can download this from the Defra website). You must transport the skins in a clean, leak proof container marked “Category 3 By-Products, not for human consumption”, and after use the container must be cleaned and disinfected.
Within 4 hours of slaughter the skins must be thoroughly salted, otherwise they will deteriorate quickly and the wool will separate from the skin. Ask the abattoir to do an initial salting, and then, if you’re not immediately delivering them to the tannery, do a thorough job when you get the skins home.
1) Make the skin is as flat as possible: open the back legs and cut through the bunghole, then remove any lumps of fat from the skin by hand – if you use a knife there’s a danger of cutting and spoiling the skin.
2) Lay the skin wool side down on a flat surface, take a double handful of salt and rub from the spine to all extremities, a large skin will require a second double handful of salt. Allow at least 1 kilo of salt per skin, per salting. pics of salting
3) If you’re dealing with several skins, lay the next down on top of the first, and repeat the salting process. You can stack up to 10 skins on top of each other, and then start another stack.
4) Once you’ve salted the batch of skins, leave them to dry somewhere cool overnight – be prepared for some brine to leak from the skins.
5) The next day, repeat the salting process, and then fold the skin, flesh to flesh along the spine.
6) They can now be laid flat or stacked to dry out further – they’ll stay in good condition for some weeks, but check regularly. As soon as they have stopped oozing fluids, they can be packed to send to the tannery.
7) Either double wrap them in strong plastic, or use sealed blue barrels and deliver via a commercial carrier if you can’t deliver personally.
A demonstration of how to salt your lambskin is available on 'Sheep for Business, Enterprise & Profit', programme 4 in the series 'Sheep on Your Smallholding'.
Have a look in our 'Useful Websites' section for 'Wool & Sheepskin Processing Services'.