The different environments across Britain led to the development of a remarkable variety of sheep breeds. They can be divided into two main types: the long-wools, such as the Leicester, Lincoln and Romney; and the short-wools, such as the Southdown and similar down breeds (sheep from the southern English downs).
Historically, the wool trade was vitally important to the English economy. Since the 1300s, this has been symbolised by the Lord Chancellor’s seat in the House of Lords being known as the woolsack.
Sheep in Britain
In the late 18th century Robert Bakewell, manager of the Dishley estate from 1760 to 1795, began a fashion for improving livestock. He set out to produce meatier, faster-maturing sheep through inbreeding. Following Bakewell, other breeders developed new breeds and established the pedigree system of stock breeding. One unforeseen outcome was that as the sheep got bigger, their wool became coarser. This decline in British wool quality, along with the increased production of English woollen mills, created a demand for Australian and New Zealand wools.
Bakewell crossed the Leicester, an old breed, with the Lincoln Longwool and produced the Dishley Leicester, later known as the English Leicester. This breed was first imported to the North Island in 1843 in the hope of avoiding footrot. It was crossed with the Merino to produce lambs with a meaty carcass and high-quality wool. There are about 15,000 pure English Leicester sheep in New Zealand.
The Lincoln was well adapted to the cold, wet conditions of the Lincolnshire fens (low, marshy areas). It was one of the largest British sheep, and grew a coarse fleece. Lincolns were brought to New Zealand in the early 1860s, and were popular in wetter districts and on heavy soils. At one time they were the most common breed in the North Island because of their hardiness and foraging ability while the bush was being cleared.
Lincolns were also popular in the South Island, where they were cross-bred with Merinos for damp country. However, their wool was stronger and less valuable than that of other breeds, so in time they fell out of favour. In the early 2000s there were about 10,000 in New Zealand.
The Romney Marsh was native to the exposed, low-lying country along the coast of Kent, which has cold bleak winters and coarse wet feed in summer. The breed was introduced into New Zealand in 1853 and became popular because of its resistance to footrot. By the end of the 19th century it had replaced the Lincoln as the most popular breed in the North Island, and was favoured in Southland and the wetter parts of Otago. The Romney was later developed into the New Zealand Romney, and made up around two-thirds of the national flock in the early 2000s.
The Cheviot is named after the Cheviot Hills in the border country between England and Scotland, and is well adapted to that cold, harsh area. The breed was brought to New Zealand in 1845. It was popular in Southland and Otago for crossing with Merinos, producing a halfbred that could cope with cold hill country. In 2007, Cheviot numbers were about 12,000.
Robert Bakewell systematised livestock breeding. Before his time, ewes and rams were often run together throughout the year, resulting in random breeding. Bakewell mated rams and ewes that had particular qualities he wanted. Then he mated the best of the progeny together – a process called inbreeding – and culled animals with undesirable traits. Bakewell’s deliberate methods revolutionised stock breeding.
The Border Leicester is also from the Borders, and was bred from a cross between the English Leicester and the Cheviot. The Border Leicester was imported to New Zealand in 1859. It is well regarded for its high fertility and has been widely used in cross-breeding. There are around 110,000 pure Border Leicester sheep in New Zealand.
Many other British breeds have been brought in at various times. Most have been used for crossing to improve the meat quality and fattening ability of the existing sheep flock.
The Southdown was introduced in 1842, and was cross-bred to produce fast-maturing lambs for the meat trade. Other down breeds – the Suffolk, Dorset Down, and Hampshire – remain popular as terminal sires (producing animals for meat, not to breed from).
The Cotswold was another early import (1840), but is no longer found in New Zealand. The Shropshire was introduced in 1864 and was popular as a fat-lamb sire in the early days of the frozen meat trade, but was superseded by the Southdown around the start of the 20th century.