Sylvana Thompson steps out into the crisp morning air, and heads across the sunlit paddock.
Making her way through the glistening gum trees, white bucket in hand, she listens to the warbling of birds and enjoys the calm. Well, for a moment anyway. Because through the trees, they have spotted her. And Sylvana can tell by each call exactly who is on their way.
The woolly sheep trot excitedly towards her, ready for some breakfast and a pat. They are black, brown, white and every colour in between. Sylvana just loves them, and the feeling is mutual.
Sylvana and her husband Ken breed coloured sheep at their Ridgewood Rylstone Farmstay and Guesthouse, and their Corriedale Black Merino-cross sheep have become part of the family.
Ken and Sylvana first came across coloured sheep because of eyes. Ken is a spectacle maker and he had a client who bred coloured sheep. And this is how they met Betty Nash.
"Betty had a Merino stud at Parkes, and I asked her how to spin wool," Sylvana said.
They became great friends with Betty, and seven years ago, they bought 50 coloured ewes, some wethers and a ram from Betty.
"So what we've got here is very special," Sylvana said.
"We have been provided with genetics from two decades of breeding," Ken said.
Sylvana said Betty is now in care, but they chat on the phone about the sheep.
Ken and Sylvana had Angus and Murray Grey cattle and crossbred sheep on their 160-hectare property, and they still run some cattle today, but they had to sell their crossbred sheep to make it through the drought.
Ken and Sylvana have fiddled with Betty's genetics, using Black Merino and Black Corriedale rams to continue breeding coloured sheep, but still have Betty's breeders. They now have 50 ewes, all with their own names, and voices. "Every sheep has a different sound," Sylvana said. "And if you are running late, they call out to you."
Their sheep graze bushland, and as well as munching on the trees and foliage, they eat St John's Wort.
"And because they are black sheep, it doesn't affect them," Sylvana said. "We practice holistic farming. We try to understand what is growing and why."
Some of their country is steep, and the sheep are right at home. "They sneak around all of the rocks and nibble everything down, even weeds," Ken said.
As well as Betty, they've had plenty of help. "Our neighbours and mentors are Bill Smith, Malcolm Swords and Rob Johnston," he said. "We've had good people mentor us. We respect these clever people. You can learn more from them than you can from any book."
Flocking in for a peaceful life
Ken and Sylvana Thompson's sheep are living the sweet life, living among the trees and enjoying a cuddle from guests to their Rylstone property.
The ram runs with the ewes year-round, but they usually find ewes lamb around the same time. "They seem to join around the longest day of the year and lamb around the shortest," Sylvana said.
The sheep are shorn in November, and have a staple length of around 10 centimetres and weigh five or six kilograms once skirted. But there are exceptions. "Midnight was a black ram we had, and his fleece weighed eight-plus kilos," Sylvana said.
Each sheep's fleece is placed in its individual bag with a staple sample and labelled. "Then you know who is producing the best fleece," she said.
Last year they used a Corriedale ram, so the offspring were white and were sold to the local butcher, who has a feedlot. But usually they keep the best wethers and also ewe lambs to breed from, but older ewes get to live out their days on the farm. "They've been good to us," Sylvana said. "I think they teach the younger ones."
They sell ewes to other small farmers. "What I love is our sheep going to farms and being nurtured like pets. They are going to schools and continuing the genetics. I don't want them to be lost."
Sharing the wool and the cuddles
Coloured sheep are cute, but for Ken and Sylvana Thompson, they are much more than that.
The couple is part of the NSW Black and Coloured Sheep Association, and often take a ewe and lamb to the Mudgee Small Farm Field Days. Their wool is bought by spinners, weavers and felters, often through Facebook, but they have also sold it to wool mills.
Ken and Sylvana are passionate about sharing their wool, showing their magnificent fleeces at Canberra Royal and Hawkesbury shows.
But the sheep aren't just loved by Sylvana and Ken. Visitors to their Ridgewood Rylstone Farmstay and Guesthouse can't get enough of the lovely colourful sheep.
"We've created a place where everyone can relax and enjoy themselves," Sylvana said "We get people from Sydney and they love the sheep, especially the lambs. We let people nurse the babies. The sheep support the farmstay, and the property supports the sheep. Holistically, it works. They just make people happy."