British Sheep: Lowland Sheep
The sheep of lowland areas of the British Isles are divided into three main groups: the old long or lustre wool sheep, the famous down sheep and crossbreds based on these two strains. Most sheep seen in lowland areas are in fact crossbreds.
The Border Leicester is one of the great modern breeds, and a fine example of the longwool type of sheep. This sheep originally came from the border country between England and Scotland, but it is now much in evidence in the lowlands. Its ancestry can be traced to the white-faced sheep introduced by the Romans between AD100 and AD400. This breed is important because its young mature early and fatten quickly and because the rams are used for stud. Sheep breeders now rely increasingly on the Blue-faced Leicester variety (a Border Leicester with some Wensleydale introduced). This is partly because the original Border Leicester was inclined to lose its teeth early, which led to problems of feeding; this fault has now been largely overcome in the Blue-faced Leicester.
The Lincoln sheep looks like the Leicester but grows longer wool. This breed is now comparatively rare in lowland areas, but is widely found in other parts of the world, notably Australia, New Zealand, Eastern Europe and Argentina.
The Romney Marsh sheep remains a native of the region that gives it its name — the bleak, low-lying area in the south-west corner of Kent that is made up of clay and sand and scattered with inlets from the sea. Anyone travelling in this part of England will see many flocks, but they are not widely found elsewhere. They are, however, the most popular and numerous sheep in New Zealand, and their wool is used in the manufacture of quality products including carpets.
The Wensleydale takes its name from the beautiful Yorkshire dale from where it originated. This sheep produces particularly long, curly, lustrous wool, but its main use is crossbreeding. The rams are crossed with Border Leicester ewes to produce Blue-faced Leicesters. Wensleydales are also crossed with the hill breeds to produce the Masham.
One of the oldest and most famous breeds of down sheep is the Southdown, which is still found throughout the grass-covered chalk hills running along the coasts of Sussex and Kent. The rams were used as studs to improve other flocks in Britain, and many other down sheep owe their development to the infusion of South-down blood. These include the Hampshire Down (which crossed withproduces the Oxford Down), the Dorset Down, the Shropshire Down and the Suffolk Down. The Suffolk sheep has become the most important breed in this group because, by crossing the ram with the Scottish Half-bred, good lambing rates and meat are produced.
All these down sheep have the same rather square, compact shape and are most distinguishable by the black face (compared with the white face of). The main difference is in the quantity of wool on the face. It is most noticeable on the Hampshire and Dorset, less on the Oxford and largely absent from the Suffolk. It is an odd coincidence of sheep-breeding that sheep without hair on the face appear to give the best lambing yields.
The Dorset Horn is another down sheep having a white face without much wool on it. It is more important than its fellow countryman, the Dorset Down, chiefly because of its capacity to produce lambs at any season. For this reason it is widely used to produce lamb for the Christmas season.
The Cheviot is valuable because it is the best dual-purpose sheep in Britain, producing quality mutton and wool. It is also exported all over the world. It takes its name from the Cheviot hills which cross between England and Scotland. It is now more popular in its so-called North Country Cheviot form, originating from the north of Scotland.
The past 30 years have seen a great development in crossbred sheep — or commercial sheep as they are often called — particularly in chalk and limestone areas. In fact the majority of sheep seen in Britain today are crossbreds. Crossbred ewes that are found in the lowlands are usually a cross between the longwool and a hill breed.
The creation of the Border Leicester (or the Blue-faced Leicester derivative) has given quite a new look to the sheep of Southern England. Before, down sheep usually had a mottled face well covered with wool, while the new Border Leicester crossbred has a distinctive white face without wool and what is termed a Roman nose. The main reason for selectively breeding the Border Leicester so widely is its remarkable capacity for producing twins or even triplets; and lambs bred from it have the advantage of fattening quickly. There are many different crosses, but the most common is achieved by mating a Border Leicester ram with Cheviot ewes; this produces the well known Scottish Half-bred.