Flocks of sheep quietly grazing on rolling hills of lush grass surrounded by thick hedgerow brimming with wildlife and bird song divided by a winding country lane is an idyllic scene and one reminiscent of traditional British countryside. Sheep have been bred for generations all over Great Britain and have come to rely on the grass they graze and the shepherd that leads them. Each environment and shepherd unique, the sheep of Great Britain have adapted to their environments and have grown the way their shepherd desires. There are now 60 native breeds of sheep each unique and each with its preferred environment and uses. Great Britain has more pedigree sheep breeds than any other nation in the world and they can be divided into five categories; Primitive breeds, Hill and Mountain breeds, Down breeds, Shortwool and Longwool breeds. The temperament, prolificacy, mothering instinct, productivity, hardiness, dependence and uses of these breeds vary greatly. The key is to select a breed most suited to your environment for the greatest benefit to you and the animal. Look out for a breed local to you, there is likely to be one. If you are looking to keep sheep purely to cut a rough lawn or spare pasture then perhaps consider letting the land to an existing keeper of sheep or allow them to graze freely, you will need to register the site as a holding and get a County Parish holding number. The site must have secure fencing and a mains water supply would be beneficial, although a trailer based water tank may be easier and cheaper.
The stratified sheep system in Great Britain
To stratify is to form or arrange in to strata. In this case it is the layers of the sheep industry.
The stratification of the sheep industry in Great Britain involves farmers utilising the attributes of many classifications of sheep breeds to produce good quality stock cheaply. The stratification is geographically linked, taking advantage of hardy sheep from remote upland locales and progressing right down to the lowland field.
To start, the mountain and hill breeds that have been selected and evolved in often harsh, varied and isolated environments across Great Britain over many centuries are bred for several years on upland farms. They produce lambs, replacement stock and wool. These hardy animals make best use of the cheap grazing of remote hill and mountain regions to produce a relatively cheap carcass. The ewes are then sold cheaply to farmers in more favourable environments in the valleys and lowlands to cross with Longwool rams or sometimes Down rams. The hill breed used may often have received little careful selection, other than what nature may provide making them a hardy reliable breed. However the Longwool and Down breeds, often from intensive lowland areas and often selected in smaller numbers to produce rams have been greatly improved. The crossing of these two classes of sheep results in offspring with favourable characteristics of both parent breeds. The Mule and Half-breds developed from the crossing of Hill ewes with Longwool rams are therefore hardy, productive and increasingly prolific. The stratification creates more productive sheep producing larger lambs for the butcher at a relatively cheap cost. Finally and often in an increasingly mild and productive environment a Down ram can be utilised as a terminal sire for crossing with these Mule or Half-bred ewes to produce lambs of lean meat with better conformation for the butcher.
The North of England Mule is created by crossing a Longwool ram the Blue Faced Leicester with a mountain/hill ewe the Swaledale.
The English Half-bred is derived from crossing a Longwool ram the Border Leicester with a Mountain/hill ewe the Clun
The Welsh Half-bred is derived from crossing a Longwool ram the Border Leicester with a Mountain/hill ewe the Welsh Mountain ewe.
The Scotch Half-bred is derived from crossing a Longwool ram the Border Leicester with a mountain/hill ewe the Cheviot.
The Masham is derived from a Longwool ram either Teeswater or Wensleydale with a mountain/hill ewe, either Dalesbred or Swaledale.
This Stratification makes best use of breeds from all environments across Great Britain and has capitalised on the poor and harsh grazing of stony mountain and hilly regions. The only exceptions are the primitive breeds. These are perhaps the most capable of surviving on poor marginal grounds and are most likely to survive left to their own devices. Perhaps the primitive breeds have yet to play a greater part for smallholders requiring a low maintenance multi-purpose breed, producing cheap lamb/hogget and either high quality or colourful wool.
Primitive breeds are often agile, alert, intelligent and independent animals, sometimes accompanied by long horns. They can be high jumpers. Their greater resistance to parasites and foot root and their usually trouble free lambing ability makes them perfect for a low maintenance extensive environment. In many respects they are easy to handle, they are light weight and have horns to hold on to. However of all breeds they are the most likely to escape and will find any available way out especially if grazing gets short, so well maintained fencing is important. They can become bucket trained which will certainly help if they do escape. Primitive breeds are not quite as tameable as others, they are usually weary but can still be rounded up by a well trained sheep dog and experienced owner if necessary. They are not prolific sheep and are not anywhere near as meaty as most other breeds, but compensate with far lower maintenance requirements and greater hardiness. Primitive breeds have a smaller appetite than most other breeds and tolerate a degree of starvation better than others. Therefore if grazing is poor or sparse, perhaps due to many years of neglect they can be utilised in small numbers until tillering (the sprouting of new shoots from the roots of grasses) or re-seeing thickens the pasture. They are also commonly utilised for conservation grazing for the management of grassland for wildlife diversity. Many primitive breeds can, depending on the stock, naturally moult their fleece. Self moulting does not occur on all specimens and many breeds are losing their ability to do so. The ability to self moult should be encouraged and selected for in stock as it is one of the most important traditional attributes of these breeds and ensures the continuation of their independent nature. It also eliminates the need for shearing and may help prevent fly strike. Unfortunately the greater care that lowland farmers and their environment offer when rearing these breeds particularly at lambing may well be encouraging the demise of this trait. Despite this, the coloured fleeces of primitive breeds whether shorn or rude is ideal for home spinners and home crafts, the fleeces of Manx Loaghtan and Shetland being particularly soft and fine.
Hill and mountain breeds are often equally as hardy as the primitive breeds but they are also more productive and commonly sired by Longwool breeds for the production of lamb in the stratified sheep system. Hill and mountain breeds each with their own native range require secure fencing if moved to lowland sites and need shearing every June. The fleece of mountain sheep is often harsh with a high micron range meaning they have thick fibres, a result of their adaptation to the often wet, bitterly cold and windswept habitats that they normally inhabit. The hard wearing wool is commonly used for carpet making. Many hill breeds will exhibit hefting behaviour whereby on large exposed and non-fenced areas of upland the sheep keep within their own range and do not stray into neighbouring farmers territory. Hill and mountain breeds can be polled or horned depending on the breed and sex.
Primitive and Hill and mountain breeds are the least costly to purchase, Primitive breeds can be particularly cheap if an opportunity arises because they have no mainstream commercial value. They are usually maintained by dedicated and loyal hobbyists.
Down breeds are those that originate from the Downs of southern England, they have short wool and are docile. They are mostly polled (hornless) and they are heavy and strong animals which could make them hard to handle. They are easily rounded by sheep dog and shepherd and require routine care including yearly shearing, hoof trimming and often help at lambing. They are very prolific breeders and meaty. A small number of Down breeds are utilised commercially as terminal sires for the production of prime lamb to meet the demand of supermarkets.
The wool from down breeds is often very fine with a soft handle making their wool suitable for hand knitting, cloth, clothing and bedding.
Shortwool breeds, are, like Down breeds often found on lowland sites and they share many characteristics, their fleece is short and in the case of Wiltshire Horns almost non-existent. With the exception of Wiltshire Horns, all Shortwool breeds require shearing. They can be horned or polled and are docile.
Longwool breeds are among the most attractive and valuable of native sheep breeds. Several breeds are commonly used as sires for crossing with hill and mountain breeds. The most notable breeds used include the Blue Faced Leicester that is used to create the popular North of England Mule, the Border Leicester’s to create Half-bred’s, and the Teeswater in the creation of the Masham.
The fleece of Longwool breeds has a very long staple. Fleeces have a lustrous sheen and the thickness of the fibre can vary greatly depending on the breed. The Blue Faced Leicester has the finest wool of any native breed. The Lincoln Longwool is the largest British Sheep breed and carries the heaviest and longest fleece. The finer wools of these breeds are used for knitwear while coarser grades from other breeds are used for carpet blends. The Longwool breeds require more routine care than primitive or Hill and mountain breeds but they are docile and more easily tamed. Some breeds such as the Lincoln Longwool and Greyface Dartmoor are surprisingly hardy having been bred in exposed environments, the coarser wool of the Greyface being testament to this. These breeds thrive best with an abundant natural diet, often supplemented in winter. Good quality pasture free from weed is important to keep fleeces clean and free from seed and vegetation.
The primitive breeds are generally the rarest of native sheep, by keeping them you will help to maintain some of the most intriguing and adaptable of native breeds while benefiting from their low maintenance attributes. Providing suitable fencing is provided they make ideal sheep for the beginner and domestic keeper, being light and easy to handle once caught although admittedly difficult to catch in the first instance.
Some hill and mountain breeds are restricted to a local range. Although they may not be numerically rare, their lack of spread across Great Britain could make them particularly vulnerable to loss in the event of national outbreaks of infectious disease such as foot and mouth. Many large flocks in close proximity could be quickly affected and thus destroyed. Therefore keeping breeds such as the Lonk outside of their natural range could be useful to ensure their long term survival.