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Tuesday, 20 Feb 2018

Sheep Breeds

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Our yarn and fleeces come from a select number of British sheep breeds


hebredian sheep2

The Hebridean is probably descended from the sheep brought over to the Scottish Islands from Scandinavia by the Vikings. Although the Hebridean did well under the harsh conditions of its new homeland it was gradually displaced by breeds such as the Blackface and is less common now in the Hebrides than on the mainland. Fortunately the few parkland flocks established on the mainland enabled the breed to flourish and it is now found throughout the UK. Although still considered a rare breed the Rare Breeds Survival Trust considers the Hebridean a 'Success Story'.

The sheep are small, lean and fine-boned with ewes weighing an average of 40kg and rams weighing around 55kg. The fleece is black or very dark brown although some sheep go silver/grey as they age. The breed is horned in both ewes and rams with most sheep having two horns. Four or six horns are occasionally seen but are less common.

The Hebridean is a hardy, thrifty breed able to cope with cold and wet conditions although it is now more commonly found in parkland. It's black fleece and unusual appearance makes the breed a popular choice for parkland grazing and for display purposes. The Hebridean has become increasingly popular as a conservation grazer being a very active browser that will eat most types of grass and vegetation.

The fleece has a staple length of 5-15cm and an average weight of 1.5kg.


Jacob 52a89dd9aed6d

Probably the oldest breed of sheep in existence. The Book of Genesis makes reference to spotted sheep belonging to Laban and looked after the shepherd Jacob after whom the breed is named. From Biblical times the breed spread outwards from the Middle East to reach Spain from where the first Jacob flock was imported into the UK in the 1750s. This flock still thrives today at Charlecote Park in Warwickshire. The breed became popular as a parkland breed but by the middle of the 20th century there were few Jacobs left. In 1969 the Jacob Sheep Society was formed by the few breed stalwarts remaining and since then the breed has gone from strength to strength. Still classed as a Rare Breed although the Rare Breeds Survival Trust considers the breed a 'Success Story'.

The Jacob is an alert looking sheep with distinctive horns. Although the horns suggest the Jacob is a primitive breed, it is substantially bigger and more deep bodied than true primitive breeds.Ewes usually weigh between 60-65kg and rams are 75-95kg. The coat is white with characteristic black patches and the breed is horned with two or four horns. Jacobs are fairly hardy and will tolerate most conditions although they have been bred primarily for parkland. The Jacob is a good breed for conservation grazing as it browses trees and shrubs as well as grass

The wool is popular with hand spinners and the distinctive black and white patterning makes the fleece ideal for use in knitwear and rugs. The fleece has a staple length of 8-15cm and usually weighs between 2 to 2.75kg.

Manx Loughtan

manx loaghtanThe Manx Loaghtan is one of the group of Northern short-tailed primitive breeds that also includes the Soay and the Shetland amongst others. All of the primitive breeds found their niche grazing areas where more developed sheep would not survive and the Manx grazed the slopes and uplands of the Isle of Man for generations. By the 1950s numbers of Manx Loaghtans had declined due to the introduction of other hill breeds but thanks to the dedication of a few enthusiasts the breed was saved from extinction. Although still rare there are now several flocks of Manx Loaghtans on the Isle of Man and throughout the rest of the UK. The Rare Breeds Survival Trust considers the breed to be 'At Risk' meaning that there are presently less than 1500 adult breeding females.

The Manx is a small, long legged, fine boned, primitive breed with a moorit (brown) fleece and brown face and legs. Ewes usually weigh around 40kg and rams are around 55kg. Both are usually horned, sometimes having four or six horns. It is a very hardy breed requiring little in the way of additional feed and able to survive in harsh conditions. The Manx does well on rough grazing and is an active browser making it an ideal breed for most conservation grazing situations.

The Manx fleece is exceptionally hard wearing and the rich moorit colouring means the wool is much in demand for use in knitwear. The staple length of he fleece is 8-13cm and the average weight of a fleece is around 1.5kg.

Norfolk Horn

Norfolk Horn 52ee304f5682cThe Norfolk Horn was originally developed to graze the heathland of Norfolk and is similar to many of the British hill breeds. The breed started to decline in popularity during the 18th and 19th centuries when it was replaced by more productive

breeds such as the Southdown. By the 20th century the breed was on the verge of extinction with only one flock in existence after the First World War. The last few sheep were passed onto Whipsnade Park and then the National Agricultural Centre but in 1973 the last purebred Norfolk Horn ram died. The end of the breed had been foreseen and a back crossing system developed involving the Suffolk, Swaledale, Wiltshire Horn and Llanwenog breeds to develop a new breed that could be considered Norfolk Horn. There are now several large flocks throughout the country and a growing number of breed enthusiasts but the Rare Breeds Survival Trust still considers the breed to be 'At Risk' with less then 1500 adult breeding females.

The Norfolk Horn is a medium sized, long legged, rangy breed with a thick white fleece. The head and legs are black and both sexes are horned with the rams having heavy spiraled horns. Ewes usually weigh around 70kg and rams are between 90 and 95kgs. The Norfolk Horn was developed to do well in dry, cold conditions and on very sparse vegetation and can thrive where other breeds would lose condition. The breed is capable of surviving on very poor pasture and is known for walking a long way in search of grazing.

The fleece has a staple length of 7-10cm and usually weighs around 1.5kg.


Portland Manx Lo 52ef45c22a5bcThe Portland is an old breed typical of the old tan-faced sheep that was found throughout the south west before the Roman invasion. The sheep were originally bred on the Isle of Portland and remained isolated from the rest of the UK until  the early 20th century when, under pressure from other breeds the last Portland sheep left the island in 1920. The breed became very rare although a flock had been established in 1770 at Calke Abbey in Derbyshire, Success with breeding and expanding the remaining flocks has meant the Portlands have recently been re-introduced on to the Isle of Portland. According to the Rare Breeds Survival Trust the breed remains 'At Risk' however with less than 1500 adult breeding females.

The Portland is a small, primitive breed although stockier and shorter than the Northern Short-tailed primitives like the Manx. Lambs are born a russet red colour but this fades as the sheep age and the face and legs become a distinctive tan colour whilst the fleece is a cream. Ewes normally weigh between 35 to 40kg and rams are 40 to 45kg. Both are horned with the rams having heavy spiraled horns.

This is a hardy, thrifty breed used to surviving on sparse grazing nut is docile and can be easily trained making it an ideal breed for smallholders. The Portland will eat rough grasses and does browse on shrubs so is a good choice for certain conservation grazing situations.

The staple length of the fleece is 6-9cm and fleeces can weight between 2 and 3 kg.


shetland sheepThe Shetland is one of the Northern short-tailed primitive breeds of sheep that includes the Manx Loaghtan and the Soay. The breed was probably influenced by sheep brought over by the Vikings from Scandinavia as the modern Shetland has many similarities with Scandinavian breeds. By the 17th century the Shetland Isles had developed a strong trade in wool and woollen products with other parts of the UK. This trade continued over the following centuries but gradually declined so that by the early 20th century only a small trade remained. In 1927 the Shetland Flock Book Society was formed to preserve the breed with great success . Although the Rare Breeds Survival Trust do classify the breed as rare the population has developed to an extent that is no longer considered to be in danger and there are now many flocks of Shetland sheep throughout the mainland and the Shetland Isles.

The Shetland is a small typical primitive breed similar in appearance to a Manx or a Soay. The breed is normally white faced with a white fleece but can come in 11 different colours with 30 different recognized markings. The size of the sheep varies more than most other breeds with ewes weighing between 25 and 45kg and rams weighing 40 to 65 kg. Shetlands are commonly bred as upland or lowland varieties with the upland being the smaller and hardier. Ewes are normally polled but can be horned and rams are horned, occasionally with 4 horns. The breed is very hardy and is able to cope with being out-wintered on the Shetland Isles. They are a very hardy breed and can survive almost anywhere being an active grazer and browser able to survive on the poorest quality forage.

The Shetland has one of the finest fleeces and is excellent for all woollen products. The wide variety of colours within the breed enables many shades of yarn to be produced without dyes or other treatments. The fleece has a staple length of around 10cm and a fleece usually weighs between 1 to 1.5 kg.

Castlemilk Moorit

castlemilk mooritTruly a rare breed with the Rare Breeds Survival Trust considering the breed 'Vulnerable' having less than 900 adult breeding females. The Castlemilk Moorit is a very recent breed stemming from the early part of the twentieth century when the late Sir Jock Buchanan-Jardine began a breeding programme on his Castlemilk Estate in Dumfriesshire, Scotland. Using Manx Loaghtan, moorit Shetland and the wild Mouflon he developed a breed specifically to beautify his parkland and provide fine, kemp free moorit coloured wool to clothe his workers. Surprisingly upon his death in 1970 the flock was mostly culled, however a few ewes and two rams were saved in two small groups. All today’s Castlemilk Moorits are descended from these two groups. The Castlemilk Moorit Sheep Society has worked hard to identify all the remaining founder lines and have worked together with their members to secure a sound genetic future for their breed but the breed remains under serious threat with the numbers of ewe lambs registered declining each year.

The Castlemilk Moorit is a small, long-legged, agile breed with great presence. The head is clean with ewes exhibiting two uniform and wide spread horns whilst rams carry heavy, evenly spiraled horns that avoid the cheeks. Although small it is one of the larger breeds of primitive lowland sheep with ewes usually weighing 40kg and rams weighing 55kg. The sheep exhibits definite white mouflon markings especially around the lower jaw, belly and leg and it has a white rump.

The breed was developed as a parkland breed and is well suited for this role or for other display purposes.The fleece has little or no kemp and is highly prized by hand spinners. The staple length is 4 to 7cm and a fleece will usually weigh around 1 kg.

White Face Woodland

whitefaced woodlandThe Whitefaced Woodland originated in the Pennines on the borders of Derbyshire and Yorkshire It was developed from the blackfaced Linton type of mountain sheep crossed with Cheviot and Merino. The Whitefaced Woodland is nowadays also known as the Penistone after the town that has held a sheep fair since 1699. Originally the Whitefaced Woodland used to be two distinct groups: the Woodland were leggy, rangy sheep and the Penistone were stockier. Over time the two groups were amalgamated and formed the one breed. The breed is now widespread and popular with both commercial farmers and smallholders however the Rare Breeds Survival Trust consider it to be 'Vulnerable' as there are less than 900 adult breeding females left.

This is one of the largest hill breeds and is a powerful, well-balanced sheep. Ewes weigh between 60 and 70kg and rams can reach 130kg. As the name suggests the face and head are white as are the legs. Both ewes and rams are horned with rams having heavy spiraled horns that can on occasion grow too close to the head. The tail is usually left undocked, especially in rams.The breed is very hardy and able to thrive on poor quality grazing and harsh terrain.

The fleece has a staple length of 15cm and usually weighs between 2 and 3 kg.