Rearing Sheep: Longwool Sheep
Longwool sheep, such as the Leicester Longwools, were introduced by the Romans and are found today in localised areas of rich land around many of the Roman settlements. Valued in the past for their wool and milk, rather than their meat, they now exist only in relatively small numbers.
The sheep industry in Britain differs from that in many other parts of Europe and the rest of the world. In Britain the main product is meat, but in much of Europe, and also in the developing countries of other continents, the production of milk and wool remains the primary purpose of sheep.
Sheep in Britain have changed with the development and demand of the market. In the Middle Ages milk was the most important product gained from sheep, but later wool manufacture became one of the main industries in Britain and was the source of considerable wealth in many different parts of the country.
Since the Industrial Revolution, however, the emphasis has switched to meat production, and many breeds which had enjoyed great popularity when milk and wool were in demand decreased in numbers and were in danger of disappearing altogether. The long-wool breeds, in particular, suffered during this change in demand. Almost all the long-wool breeds in Britain now exist only in very small numbers. They have adapted to some degree to the requirements of a meat production system, but they do not compete effectively against the popular specialist’breeds.
Longwool sheep were introduced to Britain by the Romans and kept in areas which were the centres of Roman settlement. They displaced the native primitive sheep, which retreated to the higher, less fertile ground, particularly the northern and western areas of Great Britain. Today the longwool breeds are still found in localised areas which correspond roughly to the places where they became established in Roman times. As a type, they are large, heavy animals, needing rich land and good feeding to realise their full growth. Britain’s damp climate and the strong loam soils in the lowlands were an ideal environment for these animals, which in previous centuries were famous throughout the world.
The Romney Marsh
The most popular long-wool breed in Britain at present is the Romney. It originates from the south-eastern corner of England, the area first invaded by the Romans. It has become adapted to the cold, wet environment of windswept Romney Marsh, and its long wool is an ideal protection against the inclement conditions of the area.
Although it has been exported to other countries, notably Australia and New Zealand, it has not spread to other parts of Britain and remains a rather untypical animal within the longwool group. Whereas other longwool breeds have developed their pro ductive qualities in some way, the Romney has relied for its continued popularity largely on its adaptation to its special environment.
Breeds of livestock as readily recognisable groups began to emerge significantly in the 18th century. Before then only a few distinct breeds or types existed. Among the longwool breeds the Lincoln and the Teeswater were the earliest to be recorded in agricultural literature.
The Lincoln is a massive sheep, producing the heaviest fleece with the longest staple of any breed in the world. Its home territory is the rich lowland pasture of the county from which it takes its name. The lush grazing permits great growth of bone and wool. Throughout the Middle Ages the fens and pastures of Lincolnshire supplied the wool for the looms in Norfolk, which were famous in most parts of the world.
The breeders of the Lincoln naturally placed the greatest emphasis on bleeding for the production of wool, and at the same time tended to neglect the qualities of the carcase.
Thus the Lincoln’s yield of wool increased, but the conformation of its body grew gaunt and coarse.
When the value of the wool decreased the breeders belatedly made some attempt to change the form of the breed and to remedy its defects of conformation. Today it is still one of the largest sheep in Britain, but its shape is more compact. It has a broad back with a strong frame and large bones. Its head is wide with long ears and a forelock of wool hanging over its face. However, wool is still its most highly prized product. It is valued for its length of staple, lustre and strength, which impart special qualities to yarn and fabrics made from it. Its quality of curl and lustre have proved valuable in the manufacture of coats. This breed is rare in Britain today, although relatively common in South America and Eastern Europe, and it has contributed to several modern breeds in New Zealand and Australia.
The fertile valley of the Tees in Northern England, the home of several improved types of livestock, was the home of the Teeswater sheep. It developed from the same basic stock as the Lincoln. Two centuries ago it was a tall, heavy, clumsy animal, with little to recommend it in its appearance. Its wool was long, but there were fewer fibres per unit of area of skin than on the Lincoln, so the weight of the fleece was relatively light for so large an animal. The one redeeming feature of the breed was that it was outstandingly prolific, a quality that attracted special mention as early as the 18th century when a ewe produced 16 lambs in four years. Since that time the breed has retreated inland from Tees-side up the valley to Teesdale, but it has retained its prolific qualities.
Today the Teeswater is a medium-large sheep, producing a heavy fleece of long wool that hangs in ringlets and is free from coarse fibres. The head is large, hornless and light-coloured with a darker nose. It is found only in a small area of Britain and has not been exported.
The Leicester Longwool
In contrast to the Teeswater, the influence of the Leicester Longwool has been felt in many parts of the world. Originally, the native sheep of Leicestershire were comparable in type with, but rather smaller than, those found in Lincolnshire. Wool was their main product. However, the breed became the focal point of the breeding programme developed by Robert Bakewell in the late 18th century.
Bakewell transformed the coarse, ungainly sheep with a heavy fleece of long wool and little capacity to produce meat, into a breed which became renowned for its ability to yield meat. In order to cater for the demand created by the Industrial Revolution. Bake-well emphasised the early maturing qualities of the breed, so that it yielded a carcase of high quality, which at that time required a considerable content of fat. In the process of this transformation the Leicester sacrificed its prolificness, milk yield, and some of its wool production, but it suited the requirements of the time so well that it was used to improve almost every other longwool breed in Britain. When fat became undesirable it lost its popularity, and is now found mainly in the wolds of Yorkshire and North Humberside.
The Wensleydale is a descendant of the Leicester. The breed was founded by a ram called ‘Blue Cap’, the product of mating a Leicester ram and a Teeswater ewe. Blue Cap took his name from the deep blue colour of his head, and this strong pigmentation of the skin has become a hallmark of the breed. It is found mainly in the Yorkshire Dales.
In the early 20th century the Wensleydale was used to sire prolific crossbred ewes, notably the Masham. However, after it was superseded in this function by the Teeswater, its fortunes declined rapidly. By the late 1970s only a small remnant of the breed existed.
The Wensleydale probably reflects better than any other breed the development of Britain’s sheep industry. Initially it was kept by monks in Yorkshire and used for milk and cheese production. Later the wool was found to possess special qualities — it is long, highly lustrous, and hangs in tight ringlets; it also has a unique characteristic known as ‘central checking’ which eliminates all coarse kemp fibres. When Wensleydale rams are mated with the wool-less Wiltshire Horn, or even with hairy African sheep, the crossbred progeny grow fleeces which are entirely free from kemp, an improvement otherwise beyond the powers of even the fine-woolled Merino. The long, lustrous wool of the Wensleydale is valuable for tapestry work.
In addition, this breed has probably adapted best of all the longwools to the requirements of meat production, achieving high growth rates and producing lean meat. Its pigmented skin gives it protection in hot climates. Its accumulation of valuable qualities is at last being appreciated by flockmasters, and its numbers are increasing once again.
The Cotswold is also associated with the wool trade in the Middle Ages. Cotswold fleeces provided the wealth that built many of the fine stone churches and manor houses still existing in the Cotswold hills today. The breed probably originated from sheep kept on large Roman estates in Gloucestershire, but it is unusual among longwool breeds because it evolved in an area of thin soil, whereas big sheep tend to be associated with rich, fertile land. Cotswolds were numerous until the 19th century, but after World War II the breed was reduced to one flock.
The Cotswold today is a large sheep, similar to the modern Leicester Longwool. Leicester rams have been used frequently to improve flocks of Cotswold sheep. The wool is long and wavy with an open staple. Traditionally, when the sheep are shorn the forelock is left unclipped and hangs down the face. The head is broad, hornless and white or grey in colour.
The Cotswold is still restricted largely to its native hills. Like the other longwool breeds, its qualities have been out-dated by the progress of the sheep industry, and it is sustained only by loyal enthusiasts who hope that future changes in demand may once again restore popularity to their chosen breed.