WELSH MOUNTAIN SHEEP BREEDS
The early medieval flocks of Welsh Mountain sheep were a mix of colours and markings: white, black, dark brown, and various patterns. The dark fleeces were valued for their non-fading colours, which enabled patterned garments and cloth to be made without dye. As the wool trade developed an emphasis on pure white fleece for commercial trading, the white Welsh Mountain sheep became the dominant strain, but in some isolated flocks and regions within Wales, the coloured sheep continued. Four distinct strains are now recognised as breeds in their own right.
Black Welsh Mountain sheep: This is very similar to the standard white breed, except for being pure jet black from head to tail. Although the two breeds are now separate, a white Welsh Mountain ewe can sometimes produce a black lamb. Their soft, black fleece contains no kemp and does not fade or go grey as the sheep age. The sheep are slightly lighter, but display the same hardy, undemanding characteristics, making them popular with small-scale flock keepers.
Badger Face Welsh Mountain sheep: This is a black and white breed, with two distinct pattern types. The Torddu, which means ‘black belly’ in Welsh, has a beige-white fleece, with a black underbelly, and wide, black eye-stripes. The Torwen, meaning ‘white belly’ in Welsh, has a dark fleece, with a white underbelly, and narrow, white eye-stripes. The fleece is quite variable in quality, with ewes producing approximately 3lb (1.5kg) per year, so most are raised for their high-quality meat. The Torddu is a more common ‘small flock’ sheep within Wales, but the Torwen type is rarer, being listed as ‘At Risk’ by the Rare Breed Survival Trust (RBST), which means there are fewer than 1,500 pedigree ewes and a risk of inbreeding, due to a limited number of pedigree rams.
Balwen: Meaning ‘white blaze’ in Welsh, the Balwen is a blackbrown sheep, with a white mark on its face and white on the lower half of its legs and tail. Originating in the Tywi Valley in Mid Wales, it was almost wiped out in 1947, when an exceptionally hard winter cut off the flocks and left only one ram surviving. Numbers have built up since, but it is still listed as ‘At Risk’ by the RBST. The fleece is popular with hand spinners, as it has little kemp and changes to varied shades of brown and grey as the sheep age.
South Wales Mountain sheep: This is a white breed, sometimes called the Glamorgan Welsh, as it developed to suit the Glamorgan and Brecon Beacons area. The sheep are larger, and their heavier, dense fleeces have a high proportion of kemp. They have no fleece on their undersides, which makes shearing easier.