British rare & traditional sheep breeds

There are just short of sixty (56) sheep breeds that are native Britain – more than anywhere else in the world. Of these, 22 are on the Rare Breeds Survival Trust Watchlist because they are numerically rare and a further four because the entire breed population is concentrated in a small geographical area, so very vulnerable to disease outbreaks such as Foot and Mouth.

Each of these breeds has a fascinating history and many are interlinked – the Suffolk breed, for example, derives from the Norfolk Horn and the Southdown.

Primitive breeds

Some of these breeds are classed as primitive:

  • Soay
  • Hebridean
  • Manx Loughtan
  • Shetland
  • Broreray
  • North Ronaldsay

Often from remote, island communities, these sheep have been “unimproved” by the introduction of other breeds and have often developed unique characteristics that fit them perfectly for their environment,

All the primitive breeds tend to be small, easy lambing and good mothers. Often the fleece is coloured and the breeds are often horned, sometimes with two, four or even six horns. Some of the primitive breeds moult their fleece or it can be plucked off (roo’d), thus removing the need to shear.

Because they are small, they are popular with smallholders because they are lighter to handle and don’t cut up the ground. They are hardy, thrifty and easy to care for. Lambs are small, so they are often slaughtered at over a year old to allow the carcase to develop to a more substantial size.

The meat has a reputation for fine quality and flavour.

The fleeces, often in attractive colours and of good quality, are popular with handspinners, knitters and craftworkers.

Longwool breeds

A number of breeds are classed as longwool breeds. An example is the Leicester Longwool, which is probably the progenitor of all the longwool breeds. The longwool breeds were developed for their fleece, and some breeds are capable of producing up to 20kg of fleece, often in lustrous ringlets. They tend to be large sheep, producing large lamb and mutton off forage in winter.

Other longwool breeds are:

  • Devon and Cornwall Longwool
  • Teeswater
  • Cotswold
  • Wensleydale
  • Lincoln Longwool
  • Whitefaced Dartmoor

Hill sheep

The British mountain ranges have produced many well-known breeds of hill sheep. These are hardy, thrifty sheep capable of surviving in the harshest of conditions.

Examples are:

  • Scottish Blackface
  • Hill Radnor
  • Cheviot
  • Swaledale
  • Whitefaced Woodland
  • Norfolk Horn
  • Welsh Mountain
  • Black Welsh Mountain

As well as producing purebred lambs for the store markets in Autumn (lambs sold for further fattening on lowland pasture or forage crops), the hill ewe is often crossed with rams such as the Border Leicester or the Blue-faced Leicester to produce cross bred ewe lambs for the lowground breeding flocks.

These crossbred ewes, often with distinctive names such as the Mule and the Masham, inherit the mothering ability of their hill dam and prolificacy from their sire; they are then put to a down breed tup (terminal sire) such as a Suffolk, to produce quick growing lambs that will be ready for slaughter at around six months of age.

Down breeds

Finally, there are the Down breeds. These are sheep of the lowlands and are mainly used to produce terminal sires of fat lambs. They are generally docile breeds, milky and good mothers. Some, like the Dorset Down, have longer periods when they will accept the ram – July to early November – so can be used in intensive management systems, lambing in December to produce early fat lambs for the Easter market.

Examples are:

  • Dorset Down
  • Dorset Horn
  • Ryeland
  • Suffolk
  • Oxford Down
  • Shropshire
  • Southdown

We decided that we wanted to have a British rare breed and chose the Ryeland. The Ryeland is essentially a dual purpose breed producing quality wool and a good carcase. There are white and coloured strains - we started Rosedean Ryelands with three coloured ewe hoggs.

It is a Down breed i.e. bred to live on grassland rather than hill; it's docile and quite small, so relatively easy to handle and doesn't have the escapologist tendancies of some of the primitive or hill breeds. Being small and stocky, it is a good breed for orchards as it has neither the size nor physique for stretching up to eat leaves.

Rosemary Champion

About Rosemary Champion

Rosemary lives on a 12 acre smallholding in Angus, in the east of Scotland, where she keeps Ryeland Sheep, Shetland cattle and assorted poultry. She was destined to be a smallholder from an early age.

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