There are 33 million sheep in Britain and the National Sheep Association lists 79 recognised breeds which is more than in any other country. Individually these possess distinctive features and come in a diverse range of sizes and colours. Many hill breeds have horns although in some it is only the rams. Fleeces vary in colour from black or brown through to white. Farmers selling or showing their sheep often colour the fleece with shades of yellow or orange in the belief that it will enhance their appearance.
Native breeds originally evolved to suit local conditions and were confined to specific areas. Some are very ancient. The majority were named after the areas in which they originated such as the Cotswold and Cheviot. Hampshire Downs and Southdowns grazed on the downs of southern England. In addition to pure breeds there are many recognised cross breeds, some of which are known as ‘mules’. The popular Suffolk came about by crossing Norfolk Horn ewes with Southdown rams. Romneys, emanating from marshes on the Kent/Sussex borders, originated in the 13th century and have been exported worldwide. The vast New Zealand sheep industry can trace its origins back to the Romney.
Many breeds have developed because they are able to utilise the poor grazing on fells and moorland and survive harsh weather conditions. Across the north of England, despite huge advances in sheep breeding, native breeds remain the best suited to local habitats and are therefore the most productive. Herdwicks are still a common sight on the Cumbrian fells. The lambs are born black but as they get older the whiter they become. Across to the east Swaledales are very popular and north of the border the Scottish Blackface can be found everywhere. In Wales it is usually Welsh Mountains which graze the hills and mountains. Many small and very hardy breeds, able to survive extreme conditions, evolved on Scottish islands. Hebridean sheep have black wool which is more like felt. Soay, the most primitive of all Britain’s breeds, originated on the small island of St Kilda along with the Boreray. Soay is the Norse word for sheep island. North Ronaldsays inhabit the most northerly of the Orkney Islands and are unique because they feed on seaweed. Shetlands are the smallest of our native breeds and they can be traced back to the 8th century. Conservationists have discovered that certain breeds of sheep are very good tools for preserving particular habitats, the Shetland is one of these. A few centuries ago wool was far more important than meat and East Anglian farmers found sheep breeding a lucrative business. They advertised their wealth by building churches which explains why so many small villages have extraordinarily large churches. Now the requirement is for meat, not wool, and in recent years new breeds have found their way into Britain from the continent, the most popular being the Texel imported from Holland in the 1970s.
For further information about sheep go to www.nationalsheep.org.uk it’s an excellent website.