The British Primitive Sheep

Updated: Apr 17

A short piece on the 'primitive' breeds of sheep found in the British Isles.


This country has a huge variety of both climate and pasture types from the upland fell grazing through hill pasture to lush lowland grazing. Many of these areas are not suitable for growing crops, so sheep were bred to be specifically adapted to thrive on their home patch. This is one reason we have more breeds of sheep than any other country in the world (60+). British breeds were exported to the colonies to form the basis of new breeds developed to thrive there (as early as 1609 in to the USA and with the first fleet to Australia in 1788).


Soay ram, the most ancient breed in great Britain
Soay ram photographed in Cumbria

Since 2018, I have been needle felting my way through the Rare Breeds Survival Trust’s Watchlist. One of my favourite types of sheep are what are sometimes called the “Primitives.” They are coloured breeds native to the Scottish islands with a very ancient history. They are either on the RBST Watchlist or are a RBST “success story.” They are: Soay; Boreray, North Ronaldsay, Castlemilk Moorit

Boreray ram photographed at Woolfest, Cumbria
Boreray ram photographed at Woolfest

and Manx Loaghton. The success stories are Jacob, Hebridean and Shetland. In this article, I will look at the history of sheep in the British Isles, with a particular focus on the Primitives.


North Ronaldsay ram, photographed at Woolfest
North Ronaldsay, seaweed eating sheep from the Orkneys

Sheep are not native to Great Britain but were introduced here 6000 years ago from Asia and Europe. The most ancient breed in Britain is the Soay,

Castlemilk Moorit ram photographed at Woolfest
Castlemilk Moorit ram photographed at Woolfest

descended from the wild Mouflon. These early sheep belong to the group called the Northern short-tailed sheep with only 13 vertebrae in their tails instead of the 22 that occur in other breeds. Many of these breeds are double coated, with an outer coat that sheds the rain and an inner warm coat. Their fleeces may be shed naturally in the summer or can be “rooed’ rather than shorn. Rooing means that the fleece can be pulled out by hand rather than cut with clippers. This is not painful for the sheep because it is done when the fleece is ready to shed.


Manx sheep naturally shedding its fleece, photographed on the Isle of Man
Manx sheep naturally shedding its fleece

Hebridean ram photographed in Scotland
Hebridean ram photographed in Scotland

Every year the RBST monitors animals registered by each breed society in order to produce their Watchlist. RBST has a gene bank as an insurance policy. It contains both semen and embryos so that critically endangered species can be brought back from the brink and genetic diversity can be maintained even with very low numbers. We never know when we will need genetic material from what are now rare breeds because fashions and climates change. Also, in saving rare breeds, we do not know what disease resistance to as yet unknown threats we are also preserving.


Shetland ram, photographed in Cumbria
Shetland ram

Factors influencing the decline of some sheep breeds

In the Middle ages, wool was the backbone of Britain’s economy. However, from the sixteenth century onwards, demand for British wool decreased due to a focus on meat production. This lead to a decline in the breeds that had been bred specifically for the quality of their wool.

  1. British Wool collects grades and markets British wool on behalf of producers. Wool is graded so that similar qualities, not necessarily similar breeds, are sold together. Traditionally, coloured wool has not commanded a high price because it is more difficult to dye. This particularly affects the Primitives, with their huge range of colours.

  2. Since the focus of production moved to meat, sheep carcasses have become larger. Abattoirs also prefer their carcasses to be of a uniform size which makes the small primitive breeds unpopular. However, the RBST 2019 Primitive Produce Project highlighted the fact that these sheep are “small in size, big in flavour.” Also, with a move towards smaller quantities of better quality meat of known provenance, these smaller sheep may be exactly what we need!

  3. Demand for wool declined with the introduction of 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!

Helpfully, the Winter 2020 issue of the Ark magazine (RBST’s magazine) had an item on the Primitive Produce project in which they spun, wove, knitted and felted all seven fibres. A summary of their conclusions is that for:

  • Hand spinning: Hebridean and Boreray were the quickest and easiest; Shetland and Manx Loaghton gave the best yarn.

  • Felt making: Shetland and some Hebridean were good for wet felting; Castlemilk Moorit and Manx Loaghton were good for needlefelting.

My favourite fleece is Shetland because of its fineness and the huge range of colours it comes in naturally. The Derwent Flock near Keswick has a fleece barn worth visiting. (https://www.facebook.com/DerwentFlock/


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