Today I had a lecture on breeds where we were told that there are 109 breeds of sheep in the UK and 1409 world-wide. I can name a few breeds from my work experience over the years but I thought it was time to get to know some of the main contributors to the UK lamb and wool industries. I have to admit I had no idea that sheep came in so many shapes and sizes!
25% of the world’s sheep population are known as ‘fat-tailed’ sheep. They have distinctively large tails and hindquarters and aren’t as common in Europe. Fat is stored in their tail area making it popular for cooking. Some of these sheep have coarse wool which has a limited value in the commercial market. A great example if a fat tailed sheep in shown in the top left image. That is a Blackhead Persian, an example of a ‘hair sheep’ that does not grow wool. These are very rarely seen in the UK as they are suited to warmer climates and bred for meat alone.
Sheep breeds come from the hills, uplands and lowlands. Due to stratified crossbreeding in the UK purebred and crossbred sheep are both popular in the sheep industry. Sheep are mainly bred for meat and wool, however they can also be used in the dairy industry.
Breeds come in and out of favour depending on trends in the industries at the time. Many purebred breeds are disappearing as times change. One casualty of this is the breed Clun Forest, picture in the middle at the top. I love this breed. They are gorgeous. In 1971 there were around 401,000 in the UK. In 2012 this had declined to 10,000 due to changes in the demand of the meat market. Going the opposite way, the Lleyn, originating in Wales, has risen in popularity from 7000 in 1971 to 474,000 now in the UK. The Lleyn Sheep Society website states that farmers soon find that the Lleyn ewe is an ideal sheep; quiet in nature, prolific with great maternal instincts, milky, and will not eat you out of house and home’. This breed is pictured top right.
The breed I was lambing with last year were Texels. I took the picture (second down and to the left) on a Welsh farm and think it perfectly reflects their stubborn nature but beautiful full faces. This breed have long rectangular bodies. I found out today that the breed actually has a mutation of the myostatin gene resulting in their lean musculature. This could be seen as the cause in their increase in popularity. Blue Texels are becoming especially popular in the UK meat industry. These are purebred Texels but with the recessive ‘blue’ gene. They are pictured second down and in the middle. They were originally imported to the UK from France in 1973, but the breed originated in Holland.
Scottish blackface sheep, shown second down and to the right, are the most common breed of domestic sheep in the UK. Both sexes are horned are have very distinctive black faces and legs. They are mostly bred for meat.
The Bluefaced Leicester are also very significant in the UK and are crossed with around 50% of the UK’s commercial breeding flocks. These are shown bottom left.
Jacob Sheep, middle bottom, are pretty striking and rare! Their wool is very popular as it’s naturally dark brown and white.
Another sweet breed is the Oxford Down. They produce a large meaty carcass as well as a lot of wool. They are shown bottom right.fat taile