Leicester Longwool Sheep - the ancestor of many modern breeds
Updated: Apr 21, 2021
Last year, I was invited to write a piece for the US facebook page, 52 weeks of sheep (https://www.facebook.com/groups/52weeksofsheep) about the British Longwool breed, the Leicester Longwool.
Robert Bakewell (1725-1795) was a pioneer in systematic selective livestock breeding. He
crossed the large, slow-growing sheep of the midlands with Lincolns and Ryelands (thought to have been raised by monks in Herefordshire as early as the 1300s) to create the New Leicester, later renamed the Leicester Longwool. The breed society was formed in 1893. Many modern breeds have Leicester Longwool ancestry, including the Lleyn, Wensleydale, Border Leicester, Ile de France and Corriedale.
Robert Bakewell’s pioneering ideas spread rapidly across the world. George Washington acquired some New Leicester rams to improve his flock. They reached Australia in 1826. However, the New Leicesters later lost out to Spanish Merinos and became a rare breed across the world. They were extinct in the USA in the 1930s and 40s. More recently, Colonial Williamsburg imported some from Australia to establish a flock in 1990 and now there are several conservation flocks in the United States.
The Leicester Longwool is a large, hardy, slow-growing and long-lived sheep (ewes weigh 80-100kg and rams 100-150kg). As with many of Robert Bakewell’s breeds, the real success has been in using the Leicester Longwool as a crossing sire. “Hybrid vigour” is key to the British lamb industry (see previous blog on Swaledales). Crossing two different breeds of sheep produces lambs with characteristics of both parents, but are larger and stronger than either. The Leicester Longwool is crossed with commercial or hill breeds to produce large lambs and hogget: meat from animals that are between one a two years old, so it has the tenderness of lamb and the full flavour of mutton. Hogget is a popular product from our slower growing rare breeds.
The Leicester Longwool is a friendly sheep that can survive in a variety of climates, including northern England, so has recently become popular for land management projects where it has minimal impact on the land.
Because the Leicester Longwool has such a fabulous fleece, it is often crossed with other breeds to improve the wool as well as the size of the carcass. The role of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust is to preserve these genetics as we never know when we will need these characteristics of beautiful lustrous wool and thriftiness in the future. Much of the reason for the decline in people wearing wool is due to the introduction of other fibres (cotton in the 18th Century, and later synthetic fibres). However, we have come full circle: we now know that washing synthetic fibres releases micro-plastics into the waterways so returning to wearing fully natural, biodegradable fabrics is the future!
The Leicester Longwool is a rare breed with around 900 registered ewes in the UK. The Rare Breeds Survival Trust's 2020 campaign was “Love a Longwool” (https://www.rbst.org.uk/News/rbst-love-a-longwool) to raise their profile and promote the Longwool breeds for wool, meat and conservation grazing (https://www.rbst.org.uk/leicester-longwool). Rare breed status means that the wool is allowed to be sold privately and is very popular with hand spinners, with its long and silky, lustrous locks growing at around 3cm a month. It can be used for a wide variety of purposes from lace-weight yarn to carpets.
Leicester Longwools are predominantly white, but black, dark brown and dark grey ones do occur and are increasingly popular for their naturally coloured wool. A separate register was established for them in 1984.