Britain’s extraordinarily diverse native sheep breeds lead the world. Illustrations by Fiona Osbaldstone.
Counting sheep need not be as monotonous an activity as the old adage about it curing insomnia would suggest. There’s no shortage of sheep to count, either: 33 million or so across Britain, which is a quarter of the EU flock and 3% globally. And those 33 million woolly blobs, scudding like four-legged clouds across meadow and moorland, represent the highest number of breeds or cross-breeds (about 90) than in any other country.
Each has a purpose, from the ornamental — Manx Loaghtan or Castlemilk Moorit — to the golden-fleeced (Cotswold, Wensleydale) to the commercially useful Border Leicesters and Lleyns that are slimmer, fitter versions of those comical 18th-century paintings of corpulent, four-cornered farm animals.
This abundance of choice has enabled British farming to establish a superior ‘stratified’ breeding system that blends the toughness, agility and motherliness of shaggy hill sheep, such as Swaledales and Herdwicks, with more prolific-breeding upland strains— Bluefaced Leicester or Devon and Cornwall longwool, perhaps—and then matches those offspring with a terminal sire (meat-quality improver) from a chunky, fast-maturing lowland breed such as the Suffolk, Romney, Clun Forest or Dorset Down.
Here are just some of the breeds to consider, whether for field or table or both:
No one really knows how these most primitive sheep arrived on St Kilda, but it was long, long ago—soay is Norse for ‘sheep island’—and their sure- footedness, light-framed physique and two-tone chocolatey wool closely resembles that of the wild mouflon that live among the boulders and crags of Mediterranean islands. They’re low maintenance—they lose their fleeces naturally—but can be flighty and the lambs are so tiny that they’re not worth eating until hogget sized.
2. North Ronaldsay
Orkney’s most northerly island is encircled by a drystone dyke, built in 1832, to keep its unique seaweed-eating sheep on the shoreline and off farmland, where they would suffer copper poisoning. A new annual festival (July 31–August 11 this year, www.nrsheepfestival.com) promotes the sheep, from the same breed group as the Soay, Manx Loaghtan and Shetland, and invites visitors to help maintain the dyke. Rounding up is known as ‘punding’.
The small black sheep with the uncompromising stare and, when it grows four horns, rather bonkers appearance, was saved from extinction by landowners who were seeking ornamental parkland animals. The RBST formally recognised it in the 1970s and, in 1994, a breed society
was started. The sheep have become popular with small-holders—despite their feral
beginnings, they are jolly, friendly, healthy creatures— and for conservation grazing.
4. Castlemilk Moorit
Sir Jock Buchanan-Jardine bred this dainty sheep specifically to adorn the parkland of his Castlemilk estate in Dumfriesshire. He mixed Manx Loaghtan, Mouflon and Moorit (lowland Scots for cappuccino-coloured) Shetland blood to produce this pretty, pale-bellied sheep. After Sir Jock’s death, RBST founder the late Joe Henson kept the breed going at his Cotswold Farm Park. It’s patently not one of the most commercial types, but it does look pretty in the field.
Wales has all sorts of hill breeds, including the now ubiquitous Welsh Mountain Black and the more localised Hill Radnor, Brecknock Hill Cheviot and Llandovery Whiteface, but the Balwen, which means ‘white blaze’ in Welsh, is arguably the handsomest, with its uniform facial marking, four white socks (mandatory in males) and white-tipped long tail like a fox’s brush. It hails from the Tywi valley in Carmarthenshire and was nearly wiped out by 1947 when there was only one ram left, but smallholder interest boomed and it’s had a breed society since 1985.
6. Badger Face
This ancient Welsh mountain breed is the most well represented native sheep at the Royal Welsh Show, where about 200 make for a striking checkerboard display. It splits into two exacting colour schemes: the more usual Torddu, meaning ‘black belly’, is a white sheep with black eye stripes and a black underbelly that stretches up to the jaw and the much rarer Torwen, ‘white belly’, is a black sheep with small white eye patches—both parents need to carry the badger-face gene for the lamb to have the markings. Television presenter Kate Humble is a fan.
7. Eppynt Hill and Beulah Speckled Face
These sheep, with their beautiful, elegant faces, have been bred almost exclusively for more than a century on the hills of Eppynt, Llanafan, Abergwesyn and Llanwrtyd Wells in Powys, although the bigger draft ewes are now in demand with lowland farmers to cross with their Continental, Suffolk or Down rams. They’ve been beautifully painted by Radnor-based artist Seren Bell, who is entranced by their ‘ancient bony heads’ and black-and-white uniformity.
Bakewellian theory is responsible for this sturdy white sheep from north-west Wales. Bakewell sent his Dishley Leicester rams to improve Irish ewes in Co Roscommon and the results were imported into Wales in the 19th century by Lloyd Edwards of Nanhoron and Lord Mostyn of Cefn Amlwch, who, between them, owned most of the Lleyn peninsular. In 1970, when the breed was dwindling, Moses Griffith, a breeder of all things Welsh, called a meeting in Pwllheli to rekindle interest; a society was formed and the idea promoted that Lleyn genes could be used to create a new breed, the Cambridge Hybrid. The Lleyn now flourishes; Prince Charles has a flock at Highgrove.
The cuddly, black-faced, black-legged breed was also part of the Cambridge Hybrid scheme, but its story is bound up with the opening up of the railway lines that helped the Shropshire Down to flood into Wales, where it was used to improve local hill breeds. In 1957, it was decided that this smartly marked, biddable strain of ‘Shropshire Cross’, which was almost exclusively bred around Llanwenog in the Teifi valley, should be named after the village (80% of the 88 flocks to sign up to the society were from an area called Y Smotyn Du (The Black Spot), a Unitarian stronghold).
Probably the heftiest of Brtain’s ‘Rastafarian’ sheep, bred for their lustrous fleeces, the Wensleydale, named in 1876 to provide a classification at the Yorkshire Show, is described by aficionados as having great presence. It certainly has a je ne sais quoi in the way it peers out from underneath its curly forelock or ‘top- ping’. All Wensleydales are descended from Bluecap, a fine Dishley Leicester ram born in 1839 in the North Yorkshire hamlet of East Appleton, which was crossed with longwool ewes from the Tees Valley.
The Lonk, carefully bred over 200 years in the Pennines—the flock book was started in 1905—is a particularly handsome, more powerfully built version of the ubiquitous black-faced hill sheep of the northern counties (it’s related to the Derbyshire Gritstone). Its name is mysterious, given that lonk is a Lancashire word for lanky. In 2009, chef Nigel Haworth won the BBC’s Great British Menu contest with his lonk hotpot recipe.
The Prince of Wales and Beatrix Potter have been at the forefront of promoting this Lake District icon—a ‘herdwyck’ is an ancient word for sheep pasture—which has a strong hefting tendency. The Herdwick, with its distinctive bear-like white face and charcoal-grey body, has, like other wild sheep, two coats: a woolly waistcoat and a hairy outer. National Trust founder Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley was instrumental in formalising the breed and inspired Potter to keep them; she died before she could take up her role as president of the breed society, but her will stipulated that Herdwicks should remain on her land. The lamb has EU Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status.
13. Manx Loaghtan
This is the Isle of Man’s sheep, related to the Soay and Hebridean, and its lamb also has PDO status. It’s distinguished by a rich brown colour, especially of the face—‘loaghtan’ derives from lugh dhoan, which is Manx for mouse brown or moorit (see Castlemilk Moorit)— and wonderfully crazy horns. A clash between two four-horned rams can be violent, the animals lifting their rear ends off the ground for extra impact.
14. Border Leicester
Known as the Great Improver, Britain’s largest indigenous sheep, with its distinctive prick ears and noble roman nose, is descended from Bakewell’s famous Dishley Leicesters and was probably the most sought-after breed in the country, if not the world, for cross-breeding. However, it’s now classified as ‘at risk’ by the RBST and its close relation, the Bluefaced Leicester, is far more prominent.
There’s something endearing about the Suffolk’s long black ears, which either flop down or stick up bat-like, and the uniform black face and legs add to the appeal. It was developed around rotational farming – summer clover, winter turnips and the salt marshes – in the 18th century by crossing Norfolk Horn ewes with Southdown rams in the Bury St Edmunds area. News of its superiority spread quickly — in 1797, farming commentator Arthur Young stated in his review of the county’s agriculture: ‘These ought to be called the Suffolk breed, the mutton has superior texture, flavour, quantity and colour of gravy.’ It’s now a premier British breed, its bloodlines found all over the world from Russia to South America.
The Cotswold Lion, so called for the leonine, rippling action of its corkscrew curls, was pivotal to the area’s prosperity—it was wool money that paid for all those famously mellow buildings. The sheep, probably brought by the Romans, were in such demand with foreign merchants, who paid handsomely for the ‘golden fleeces’, that Henry VI licensed their export. Numbers plunged dramatically as manmade fibres took over, but, in 1966, the efforts of hobby farmers, plus major breeder William Garne of Aldsworth, brought about a resurgence.
The insularity of life on this barren island off the Dorset coast helped preserve the characteristics of this small, hardy, primitive downland sheep, its golden tan face, creamy, latte-coloured wool and venerable expression framed (on the rams) by magnificent spiral horns. There were some 4,000 sheep on the island in 1840, but improved connections with the mainland resulted in the breed being swamped by competition. Its rescue from near extinction is thanks to the RBST, which, in 1974, tracked down bloodlines and rebuilt the flock; there are now a healthy 250 registered breeders.
This uncomplicated, smiley-faced downland sheep had grazed the South Downs in huge numbers for centuries, helping to improve the fertility of the chalky soil, when enterprising Lewes farmer John Ellman began to standardise it in the 18th century. His efforts created one of the present day’s premier commercial breeds for developing other native terminal sire breeds, including the French Charollais as well as the Hampshire Down, Oxford Down, Norfolk Horn and Suffolk.
19. Devon and Cornwall Longwool
This comically fringed, placid breed, which is reputed to produce more wool per sheep than any other breed—it’s so woolly that the lambs can be sheared—is an amalgam of the South Devon and Devon Longwool; the flock book was established in 1977. The hard-wearing wool is chiefly used in carpets as well as for doll’s hair and needle felting.
20. Greyface Dartmoor
This appealing, slow-maturing sheep with Portland its curly fringe and black smudge nose is also known as the Dartmoor or Improved Dart- moor, a reference to its development in the 19th century from the three centres of South Hams, Chagford and Tavistock, when it was crossed with local longwools and Leicesters. The white face should have grey mottling to match its legs
21. Exmoor Horn
Exmoor farmers are proud of the animals that have shaped the romantic landscape there. The local sheep, with its wide face and splendid curly horns has been described as ‘looking you in the eye’ with the ‘irascible, defiant grumpiness’ that has helped it survive bleak weather. It’s prized for its meat and its wool is considered better quality than that of most hill breeds. The Exmoor Horn’s renaissance has coincided with that of mutton as a fashionable meat. When crossed with the Leicester, the result is reputed to be one of Britain’s highest-quality mules.
On the critical list
Endangered (300–500 breeding ewes)
- Devon and Cornwall Longwool
- Hill Radnor
- Leicester Longwool
- North Ronaldsay
- Whitefaced Woodland
At risk (900–1,500)
- Border Leicester
- Castlemilk Moorit
- Lincoln Longwool
- Manx Loaghtan
- Devon Closewool
- Dorset Down
- Dorset Horn
- Greyface Dartmoor
- Norfolk Horn
- Oxford Down
- Whiteface Dartmoor
From the Rare Breeds Survival Trust Watchlist 2016 (www.rbst.org.uk)