How to understand the history of sheep breeding in today’s Britain

To understand the history of sheep breeding in today’s Britain one has to know about Robert Bakewell and his secret sheep breeding societies.

Panting ewe greeting card with a ewe in readiness for the onset of labour illustrating the history of sheep breeding in Britain

Meanwhile, a breed of sheep that we like, is feature in Panting Ewe, one of our greeting cards. It features a head-on look at a heavily pregnant sheep. The ewe is panting in measured breaths, waiting for labour to begin.

She was one of perhaps 50 ewes in a barn, all standing patiently. They looked as though they were coping with a rising tide of emotional upheaval.

The fact that all the ewes were ready to give birth at the same time was not an accident. In part it is down to sheep hormones. If the farmer gets it right, that ewe in labour is joined for the final push by all her sisters.

Sheep In Estrus

The average gestation period for a ewe is 147 days. Unlike humans, however, sheep only have an average of 17 days in the year when they are in estrus, as the breeding cycle is called.

And within those 17 days they are only receptive to being mated for about a day and a half. So getting the timing of the lambing right that far in advance of spring is a challenge for the farmers. And the farmer helps this along by bringing the ewes and the rams together at the right time.

Now fast forward to spring. All the ewes are pregnant and will give birth around about the same time.

The farmer steps in again and puts all the ewes together. The farmer knows that once one ewe goes into labour the others will be affected by the heady brew of hormones that swirls around the flock.

The result is that all the flock gives birth over a very intensive couple of days. That gives the lambs the best chance for survival rather than giving birth in a far-off corner of a field in the middle of the night.

The History Of Sheep Breeding In Britain

To understand the history of sheep breeding in Britain you have to understand that the breeding is based up what is known as the sheep pyramid. It is an ancient method whereby hill sheep in the North Of England and Scotland are mated with sheep of middle England. And from there, the offspring are mated with lowland sheep in the South of England.

To understand the sheep breeds themselves, however, you have to look a bit deeper. In fact, you have to see through the eyes of Robert Bakewell. In about 1760 he took over his father’s tenancy of the farm and started to improve the old Lincolnshire breed. And his method was a break with the past that was both simple and outrageous. In one bold move he changed the course of the history of sheep breeding in Britain.

A sheep sideways on against a sand and green plain background and a bar code label above it and text 'Baa Code'

It was a simple method in that he separated rams from ewes and only allowed the best rams to breed with the ewes.

It was outrageous in that he bred sons with mothers, fathers with daughters, and other close relatives with each other.

Religion And Farming In The History Of Sheep Breeding

In the Old Testament in Leviticus 18:1-30, there is a specific prohibition against mothers and sons copulating and other family sexual relationships. There is, however, no prohibition in the bible against animals in close relationship mating. The prohibition only refers to human beings.

But through the centuries, English farmers thought that somehow the same principle ought to apply to animals as to humans. So the practice of mating close relatives was forbidden, not by law but by mutual agreement.

Until Robert Bakewell came along. And while our Baa Code greeting card is designed to be a play on words or sounds, the reality of what happened to ancient breeds is a story for our times, especially with so many species become extinct.

Robert Bakewell Of Dishley

Bakewell set up a private society named the Dishley Society after the place he lived. The members were like-minded farmers with one aim. Their aim was to make money by ‘improving’ their flocks by selective breeding. And although they kept detailed records of their experiments, they were sworn to secrecy outside the society.

Bakewell was wildly successful and he broke open the dam that had controlled sheep breeding until then.

He started with the old Lincolnshire breed and bred what he named the New Leicester, from the area in which he farmed.

The problems that ensued were twofold. First, tastes changed. In Bakewll’s days the urban masses had a taste for fatty mutton. And with the coming of industrialisation, the urban masses were growing. So the farmers in the Dishley Society bred sheep that put on meat at the shoulder and did so at the expense of good wool.

And it all went swimmingly for a while, But then taste in mutton changed, and the breed was out of step with public taste.

The second problem is more fundamental. Over time, as sheep breeders bred selectively, they lost the original breed from which the line started.

Preserving Ancient Breeds

That original breed was the result of millennia of Nature taking the lead and producing the breed that best suited the balance of Nature. With selective breeding and forced breeding of close relatives, all that was gone.

Herdwick ram golden horns poster illustrating the history of sheep breeding in Britain

Farmers could only try to get back to the original qualities they needed with more breeding. But that is just adding more complications and it doesn’t work. No one can click their fingers and put a ewe in labour on demand. It is a year-long experiment, and one shouldn’t need to be done.

Ancient breeds must be preserved, for the simple reason that they are the outcome of Nature in balance. They hold secrets in the same way that, for example, moulds hold secrets. That is, they do s until the forests are stripped and the moulds destroyed. Penicillin would not exist if nature had been trampled.

Guard Against Loss

It is to guard against further loss that rare breeds maintained by some farmers today against the changing fashion of tastes.

As an example, were it not for the famous children’s author Beatrix Potter, the Herdwick would be gone. You can read about the work in Preserving The Herdwick Breed about the work she did to ensure the survival of the breed.

This is a Herdwick, an ancient uplands breed. It needs no fences to keep it in because it is ‘hefted to the hill’ as you can read in the article. This image is the Golden Horns poster.

So when we look at the sheep in the fields, know that many breeds are the outcome of selective breeding. And know that if it doesn’t go against any biblical prohibition, it plays fast and loose with Nature.

There is a philosophical question. How can we even talk about man going against Nature when man is part of Nature? To do so we have to carve out a special place for man, separate from everything else. Perhaps that is an argument that Bakewell made.

What is the counter-argument?

An Udder With A Cow On The End

It’s not so obvious with sheep, but look at cows bred the same way. Dairy cows are selectively bred so that they weigh about three times what a typical cow would have weighed in Elizabethan times. You only have to look at modern breeds to wonder for whose benefit this is done.

cow saying congratulations

Some breeds now are monstrous. They are little more than a milk machine with a cow on the end, as it were. The ones here in this Cows greeting card are an old breed, but some are bred beyond compassion. Some dairy cows are so weighed down by their full udders that farmer have to shackle their hind legs together. They shackle them together to prevent the cow’s legs from spreading, and collapsing under the weight.

A ‘normal’ cow gives about 4 litres of milk per day. Selectively bred Holstein-Friesians give more than 22 litres of milk per day over three forced lactations, and then they are sent off for slaughter.

While they are producing milk, factory farmed dairy cows are kept in a low movement environment with little or zero natural grazing. They are fed a low fibre, high-energy diet that their stomachs and intestines are not built for, but which gives a high milk yield.

I’m not a vegetarian, so I can hardly complain and say that I’m opposed to the idea of killing animals for food per se. But equally I am aware of the indignities we suffer on animals while they are alive. If you are interested, look up Compassion In World Farming, for the work they do.

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