BACK in the middle ages British wool was famous for its fineness, due to starvation rather than the result of a successful breeding programme for fine wool.

In those days sheep were regarded as "the golden hoof" that improved the fertility of the land. Their diet was not supplemented with valuable cereals or scarce fodder during the winter months, and they were left to scavenge over common grazing and fallow fields to spread their muck. Under-nourished sheep fail to develop fleeces to their full genetic potential and yield light fleeces of finer wool. Matters were made worse by the widespread custom in those days of milking sheep during the spring and summer.

In Britain the cow began to replace the milking ewe after the Black Death, but some of our most famous cheeses, such as Wensleydale and Cheddar, have their origins in the large numbers of ewes that used to be milked in those areas.

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Milking sheep goes back to the dawn of agriculture and although the cow has now replaced the milking ewe as the primary supplier of milk in Northern Europe, large numbers are still milked across Southern Europe, the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa. Spanish "Manchego", French "Roquefort", Greek "Feta" and Italian "Pecorino" are world-famous cheeses.

To put things in perspective, the total number of milking ewes in Greece, Italy, France and Spain is 16.3m, while the total number of milking goats is about half that at 8m. The majority of milking ewes in the EU are in Greece with 6.1m, Italy has 5.7m, while Spain has 2.9m and France 1.6m. It is reckoned there are about two hundred sheep dairy farms in Britain, milking some 20,000 ewes.

One of the most important characteristics of sheep milk is that it is naturally homogenised. The very small size of the fat globules means that they remain mixed evenly throughout the milk rather than rising to the top like cream. This makes the milk easy to digest. It also means that sheep milk can be frozen and when it is defrosted it remains in its natural state and can be drunk or made into cheese as if it had been freshly produced.

Sheep milk is the most nutritious milk on sale in the world today. It is gentle on the digestive system and contains nearly double - and in some cases more than double - the amount of solids found in either goat or cow milk. As a result, more cheese can be produced from a litre of sheep milk than a litre of goat or cow milk. Sheep milk yields between 18 and 25 per cent cheese, whereas goat and cow milk yield only about 9 to 10 per cent.

During a lactation of between 200 and 250 days yields per ewe can vary from between 150 litres and 600 litres depending on nutrition, genetics and management. Typically a flock of between 400 and 500 ewes should average between 300 and 400 litres.

Each region has developed its own breed of dairy sheep to suit the local environment such as the East Friesian of Germany, the Lacaune in France, the Chios of Greece or the Sarda of Italy. The revival of sheep milking in Britain goes back to the importation of East Friesian, or Friesland sheep - the most popular milking breed in Northern Europe - in the 1960s.

Less than a thousand sheep are milked in Scotland, and as far as I know there are only two Scottish commercial flocks of milking sheep - one in Lanarkshire and the other near Newton Stewart.

The Newton Stewart flock is run by Alan and Helen Brown at Millairies Farm. Initially their milk was frozen, taken to a cheese-maker in Ayrshire and brought back to Millairies to mature, However, in the 1990s, the Browns made the leap into their own cheese production.

The pregnant ewes are kept indoors during the winter until they lamb in February and March. After a few days they go out to a clover-rich pasture and, unusually, are allowed to suckle their lambs. Typically the lambs are taken from their ewes within a few days of birth and reared on milk substitutes so that their mothers can be milked, but the Browns allow the lambs to be reared naturally by their mothers until they are weaned in the end of May. That's when the Browns start to milk their ewes once-a-day until about the middle of September. Although the system yields less milk, the lambs have a good life.

Maybe more farmers should consider producing sheep milk for cheese.