‘We pro­duce one-third of EU sheep meat–that sec­tor is twitchy about Brexit’

Fac­ing an un­cer­tain fu­ture,

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Il­lus­tra­tions by Fiona Os­bald­stone

We pro­duce onethird of EU sheep meat–that sec­tor is twitchy about Brexit

COUNT­ING sheep need not be as mo­not­o­nous an ac­tiv­ity as the old adage about it cur­ing in­som­nia would sug­gest. There’s no short­age of sheep to count, ei­ther: 33 mil­lion or so across Bri­tain, which is a quar­ter of the EU flock and 3% glob­ally. And those 33 mil­lion woolly blobs, scud­ding like four-legged clouds across meadow and moor­land, rep­re­sent the high­est num­ber of breeds or cross­breeds (about 90) than in any other coun­try.

Each has a pur­pose, from the or­na­men­tal— Manx Loagh­tan or Castlemilk Moorit—to the golden-fleeced (Cotswold, Wens­ley­dale) to the com­mer­cially use­ful Bor­der Le­ices­ters and Lleyns that are slim­mer, fit­ter ver­sions of those com­i­cal 18th-cen­tury paint­ings of cor­pu­lent, four-cor­nered farm an­i­mals.

This abun­dance of choice has en­abled Bri­tish farm­ing to es­tab­lish a su­pe­rior ‘strat­i­fied’ breed­ing sys­tem that blends the tough­ness, agility and moth­er­li­ness of shaggy hill sheep, such as Swaledales and Herd­wicks, with more pro­lific-breed­ing up­land strains— Blue­faced Le­ices­ter or Devon and Corn­wall long­wool, per­haps—and then matches those off­spring with a ter­mi­nal sire (meat-qual­ity im­prover) from a chunky, fast-ma­tur­ing low­land breed such as the Suf­folk, Rom­ney, Clun For­est or Dorset Down.

This idea of ‘im­prov­ing’ an­i­mals, be they sheep, horses, pigs or cat­tle, took hold dur­ing the Agri­cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion of the 18th cen­tury. The great pro­tag­o­nist was the well-trav­elled and eter­nally cu­ri­ous Robert Bakewell of Dish­ley in Le­ices­ter­shire. He con­ducted many of his breed­ing ex­per­i­ments in se­cret for fear of prej­u­dice—much spec­u­la­tion sur­rounded his use of a mys­te­ri­ous black-faced tup—and kept skele­tons and pick­led car­casses for later study.

His fame and his sheep spread widely, at­tract­ing the at­ten­tion of Ge­orge III, and his ram, ‘Two Pounder’, which was re­puted to have earned 800 guineas in a sin­gle year, be­came the stuff of farm­ing leg­end.

Bakewell es­tab­lished the prin­ci­ple of se­lec­tive breed­ing for de­sir­able traits and his blood­lines pre­vail to­day. The Blue­faced Le­ices­ter, de­scended from his Dish­ley Le­ices­ter, is Bri­tain’s most prom­i­nent breed, sir­ing nearly 50% of the com­mer­cial flock—its USP is that its cross­bred prog­eny, known as a mule, will un­fail­ingly pro­vide a greater fi­nan­cial re­turn than its mother.

The legacy of Bakewell and other en­light­ened agri­cul­tur­al­ists of his era is that Bri­tain is now the world’s sixth big­gest sheep-meat pro­ducer, ex­port­ing more than one-third of its pro­duce— that in­cludes one-third of EU sheep meat, which is why that farm­ing sec­tor is so twitchy about Brexit— and con­tribut­ing some £291 mil­lion to the em­ploy­ment econ­omy. This state of af­fairs has not hap­pened by chance.

The 20th-cen­tury post-sec­ond World War drive for food pro­duc­tion nearly caused the ex­tinc­tion of sev­eral breeds, at­trac­tive an­i­mals that have, largely, been saved by the rise of the small­holder and hobby farmer and by the Rare Breeds Sur­vival Trust (RBST). The char­ity’s far-sighted founders, a group of farm­ers, scoured the coun­try­side and farm sales to find an­i­mals that would pre­serve gene pools for the fu­ture and the pres­i­dent, The Prince of Wales, threw his weight be­hind the Cam­paign for Wool, the Mut­ton Re­nais­sance and be­lea­guered hill farm­ers.

Health fears about red meat haven’t helped, even though trimmed lean lamb con­tains only 8% fat, and nei­ther has com­pe­ti­tion from im­ports on the su­per­mar­ket shelves—the price of a fleece may now be as low as 50p. In De­cem­ber, the Na­tional Sheep As­so­ci­a­tion was prompted to re­but crit­i­cism of ‘sheep-wracked hills’ by en­vi­ron­men­tal cam­paigner Ge­orge Mon­biot with a pa­per ex­plain­ing the an­i­mals’ im­por­tance in con­ser­va­tion graz­ing, soil fer­til­ity and the lo­cal econ­omy, es­pe­cially in the up­lands.

A land­scape de­void of sheep would be bleak—the foot-and-mouth out­break of 2001 pro­vided an eerie fore­telling—but a healthy fu­ture doesn’t only lie in the hands of farm­ers and breed­ers: we can all make sure that our de­li­cious Easter joint of roast lamb has been reared on Bri­tish soil. Here are just some of the breeds to con­sider, whether for field or ta­ble or both.

Soay

1 No one re­ally knows how these most prim­i­tive sheep ar­rived on St Kilda, but it was long, long ago—soay is Norse for ‘sheep is­land’—and their sure­foot­ed­ness, light-framed physique and two-tone choco­latey wool closely re­sem­bles that of the wild mou­flon that live among the boul­ders and crags of Mediter­ranean is­lands. They’re low main­te­nance—they lose their fleeces nat­u­rally—but can be flighty and the lambs are so tiny that they’re not worth eat­ing un­til hogget sized.

North Ron­ald­say

2 Orkney’s most northerly is­land is en­cir­cled by a dry­s­tone dyke, built in 1832, to keep its unique sea­weed-eat­ing sheep on the shore­line and off farm­land, where they would suf­fer cop­per poi­son­ing. A new an­nual fes­ti­val (July 31–Au­gust 11 this year, www.nr­sheep­fes­ti­val.com) pro­motes the sheep, from the same breed group as the Soay, Manx Loagh­tan and Shet­land, and in­vites vis­i­tors to help main­tain the dyke. Round­ing up is known as ‘pund­ing’.

He­bridean

3 The small black sheep with the un­com­pro­mis­ing stare and, when it grows four horns, rather bonkers ap­pear­ance, was saved from ex­tinc­tion by landown­ers who were seek­ing or­na­men­tal park­land an­i­mals. The RBST for­mally recog­nised it in the 1970s and, in 1994, a breed so­ci­ety was started. The sheep have be­come pop­u­lar with small­hold­ers—de­spite their feral be­gin­nings, they are jolly, friendly, healthy crea­tures— and for con­ser­va­tion graz­ing.

Castlemilk Moorit

4 Sir Jock Buchanan-jar­dine bred this dainty sheep specif­i­cally to adorn the park­land of his Castlemilk es­tate in Dum­friesshire. He mixed Manx Loagh­tan, mou­flon and moorit (low­land Scots for cap­puc­cino-coloured) Shet­land blood to pro­duce this pretty, pale-bel­lied sheep. Af­ter Sir Jock’s death, RBST founder the late Joe Hen­son kept the breed go­ing at his Cotswold Farm Park. It’s patently not one of the most com­mer­cial types, but it does look pretty in the field.

Bal­wen

5 Wales has all sorts of hill breeds, in­clud­ing the now ubiq­ui­tous Welsh Moun­tain Black and the more lo­calised Hill Rad­nor, Brec­knock Hill Che­viot and Llan­dovery White­face, but the Bal­wen, which means ‘white blaze’ in Welsh, is ar­guably the hand­somest, with its uni­form fa­cial mark­ing, four white socks (manda­tory in males) and white-tipped long tail like a fox’s brush. It hails from the Tywi val­ley in Car­marthen­shire and was nearly wiped out by 1947 when there was only one ram left, but small­holder in­ter­est boomed and it’s had a breed so­ci­ety since 1985.

Badger Face

6 This an­cient Welsh moun­tain breed is the most well rep­re­sented na­tive sheep at the Royal Welsh Show, where about 200 make for a strik­ing checker­board dis­play. It splits into two ex­act­ing colour schemes: the more usual Torddu, mean­ing ‘black belly’, is a white sheep with black eye stripes and a black un­der­belly that stretches up to the jaw and the much rarer Tor­wen, ‘white belly’, is a black sheep with small white eye patches— both par­ents need to carry the badger-face gene for the lamb to have the mark­ings. Tele­vi­sion pre­sen­ter Kate Hum­ble is a fan.

Ep­pynt Hill and Beu­lah Speck­led Face

7 These sheep, with their beau­ti­ful, el­e­gant faces, have been bred al­most ex­clu­sively for more than a cen­tury on the hills of Ep­pynt, Llanafan, Aberg­wesyn and Llan­wr­tyd Wells in Powys, although the big­ger draft ewes are now in de­mand with low­land farm­ers to cross with their Con­ti­nen­tal, Suf­folk or Down rams. They’ve been beau­ti­fully painted by Rad­nor-based artist Seren Bell, who is en­tranced by their ‘an­cient bony heads’ and black-and-white uni­for­mity.

Lleyn

8 Bakewellian the­ory is re­spon­si­ble for this sturdy white sheep from north-west Wales. Bakewell sent his Dish­ley Le­ices­ter rams to im­prove Ir­ish ewes in Co Roscom­mon and the re­sults were im­ported into Wales in the 19th cen­tury by Lloyd Ed­wards of Nan­horon and Lord Mostyn of Cefn Aml­wch, who, be­tween them, owned most of the Lleyn penin­su­lar. In 1970, when the breed was dwin­dling, Moses Grif­fith, a breeder of all things Welsh, called a meet­ing in Pwll­heli to rekin­dle in­ter­est; a so­ci­ety was formed and the idea pro­moted that Lleyn genes could be used to cre­ate a new breed, the Cam­bridge Hy­brid. The Lleyn now flour­ishes; Prince Charles has a flock at High­grove.

Llan­wenog

9 The cud­dly, black-faced, black-legged breed was also part of the Cam­bridge Hy­brid scheme, but its story is bound up with the open­ing up of the rail­way lines that helped the Shrop­shire Down to flood into Wales, where it was used to im­prove lo­cal hill breeds. In 1957, it was de­cided that this smartly marked, bid­dable strain of ‘Shrop­shire Cross’, which was al­most ex­clu­sively bred around Llan­wenog in the Teifi val­ley, should be named af­ter the vil­lage (80% of the 88 flocks to sign up to the so­ci­ety were from an area called Y Smo­tyn Du (The Black Spot), a Uni­tar­ian strong­hold).

Wens­ley­dale

10 Prob­a­bly the hefti­est of Bri­tain’s ‘Rasta­far­ian’ sheep, bred for their lus­trous fleeces, the Wens­ley­dale, named in 1876 to pro­vide a clas­si­fi­ca­tion at the York­shire Show, is de­scribed by afi­ciona­dos as hav­ing great pres­ence. It cer­tainly has a je ne sais quoi in the way it peers out from un­der­neath its curly fore­lock or ‘top­ping’. All Wens­ley­dales are de­scended from Blue­cap, a fine Dish­ley Le­ices­ter ram born in 1839 in the North York­shire ham­let of East Ap­ple­ton, which was crossed with long­wool ewes from the Tees Val­ley.

Lonk

11 The Lonk, care­fully bred over 200 years in the Pen­nines—the flock book was started in 1905—is a par­tic­u­larly hand­some, more pow­er­fully built ver­sion of the ubiq­ui­tous black-faced hill sheep of the north­ern coun­ties (it’s re­lated to the Der­byshire Grit­stone). Its name is mys­te­ri­ous, given that lonk is a Lan­cashire word for lanky. In 2009, chef Nigel Ha­worth won the BBC’S Great Bri­tish Menu con­test with his lonk hot­pot recipe.

Herd­wick

12 The Prince of Wales and Beatrix Pot­ter have been at the fore­front of pro­mot­ing this Lake District icon—a ‘herd­wyck’ is an an­cient word for sheep pas­ture—which has a strong heft­ing ten­dency. The Herd­wick, with its dis­tinc­tive bear-like white face and char­coal-grey body, has, like other wild sheep, two coats: a woolly waist­coat and a hairy outer. Na­tional Trust founder Canon Hard­wicke Rawns­ley was in­stru­men­tal in for­mal­is­ing the breed and in­spired Pot­ter to keep them; she died be­fore she could take up her role as pres­i­dent of the breed so­ci­ety, but her will stip­u­lated that Herd­wicks should re­main on her land. The lamb has EU Pro­tected Des­ig­na­tion of Ori­gin (PDO) sta­tus.

Manx Loagh­tan

13 This is the Isle of Man’s sheep, re­lated to the Soay and He­bridean, and its lamb also has PDO sta­tus. It’s dis­tin­guished by a rich brown colour, es­pe­cially of the face—‘loagh­tan’ de­rives from lugh dhoan, which is Manx for mouse brown or moorit (see Castlemilk Moorit)— and won­der­fully crazy horns. A clash be­tween two four-horned rams can be vi­o­lent, the an­i­mals lift­ing their rear ends off the ground for ex­tra im­pact.

Bor­der Le­ices­ter

14 Known as the Great Im­prover, Bri­tain’s largest in­dige­nous sheep, with its dis­tinc­tive prick ears and no­ble ro­man nose, is de­scended from Bakewell’s fa­mous Dish­ley Le­ices­ters and was prob­a­bly the most sought-af­ter breed in the coun­try, if not the world, for cross-breed­ing. How­ever, it’s now clas­si­fied as ‘at risk’ by the RBST and its close re­la­tion, the Blue­faced Le­ices­ter, is far more prom­i­nent.

Suf­folk

15 There’s some­thing en­dear­ing about the Suf­folk’s long black ears, which ei­ther flop down or stick up bat-like, and the uni­form black face and legs add to the ap­peal. It was de­vel­oped around ro­ta­tional farm­ing—sum­mer clover, win­ter turnips and the salt marshes—in the 18th cen­tury by cross­ing Nor­folk Horn ewes with South­down rams in the Bury St Ed­munds area. News of its su­pe­ri­or­ity spread quickly— in 1797, farm­ing com­men­ta­tor Arthur Young stated in his re­view of the county’s agri­cul­ture: ‘These ought to be called the Suf­folk breed, the mut­ton has su­pe­rior tex­ture, flavour, quan­tity and colour of gravy.’ It’s now a premier Bri­tish breed, its blood­lines found all over the world from Rus­sia to South Amer­ica.

Cotswold

16 The Cotswold Lion, so called for the leo­nine, rip­pling ac­tion of its corkscrew curls, was piv­otal to the area’s pros­per­ity—it was wool money that paid for all those fa­mously mel­low build­ings. The sheep, prob­a­bly brought by the Ro­mans, were in such de­mand with for­eign mer­chants, who paid hand­somely for the ‘golden fleeces’, that Henry VI li­censed their ex­port. Num­bers plunged dra­mat­i­cally as man­made fi­bres took over, but, in 1966, the ef­forts of hobby farm­ers, plus ma­jor breeder Wil­liam Garne of Aldsworth, brought about a resur­gence.

Port­land

17 The in­su­lar­ity of life on this bar­ren is­land off the Dorset coast helped pre­serve the char­ac­ter­is­tics of this small, hardy, prim­i­tive down­land sheep, its golden tan face, creamy, latte-coloured wool and ven­er­a­ble ex­pres­sion framed (on the rams) by mag­nif­i­cent spi­ral horns. There were some 4,000 sheep on the is­land in 1840, but im­proved con­nec­tions with the main­land re­sulted in the breed be­ing swamped by com­pe­ti­tion. Its res­cue from near ex­tinc­tion is thanks to the RBST, which, in 1974, tracked down blood­lines and re­built the flock; there are now a healthy 250 reg­is­tered breed­ers.

South­down

18 This un­com­pli­cated, smi­ley-faced down­land sheep had grazed the South Downs in huge num­bers for cen­turies, help­ing to im­prove the fer­til­ity of the chalky soil, when en­ter­pris­ing Lewes farmer John Ell­man be­gan to stan­dard­ise it in the 18th cen­tury. His ef­forts cre­ated one of the pre­sent day’s premier com­mer­cial breeds for de­vel­op­ing other na­tive ter­mi­nal sire breeds, in­clud­ing the French Charol­lais as well as the Hamp­shire Down, Ox­ford Down, Nor­folk Horn and Suf­folk.

Devon and Corn­wall Long­wool

19 This com­i­cally fringed, placid breed, which is re­puted to pro­duce more wool per sheep than any other breed—it’s so woolly that the lambs can be sheared—is an amal­gam of the South Devon and Devon Long­wool; the flock book was es­tab­lished in 1977. The hard­wear­ing wool is chiefly used in car­pets as well as for doll’s hair and nee­dle felt­ing.

Grey­face Dart­moor

20 This ap­peal­ing, slow-ma­tur­ing sheep with its curly fringe and black smudge nose is also known as the Dart­moor or Im­proved Dart­moor, a ref­er­ence to its de­vel­op­ment in the 19th cen­tury from the three cen­tres of South Hams, Chag­ford and Tav­i­s­tock, when it was crossed with lo­cal long­wools and Le­ices­ters. The white face should have grey mot­tling to match its legs.

Ex­moor Horn

21 Ex­moor farm­ers are proud of the an­i­mals that have shaped the ro­man­tic land­scape there. The lo­cal sheep, with its wide face and splen­did curly horns has been de­scribed as ‘look­ing you in the eye’ with the ‘iras­ci­ble, de­fi­ant grumpi­ness’ that has helped it sur­vive bleak weather. It’s prized for its meat and its wool is con­sid­ered bet­ter qual­ity than that of most hill breeds. The Ex­moor Horn’s re­nais­sance has co­in­cided with that of mut­ton as a fash­ion­able meat. When crossed with the Le­ices­ter, the re­sult is re­puted to be one of Bri­tain’s high­estqual­ity mules.

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