Why Leicester Longwools?

A question we get asked a lot is . . . why Leicester’s?  Or even . . . why sheep?

It really comes down to three basic concepts:  Sustainability, Versatility, and Historically Relevant.

I was raised on a cattle ranch, and with Christine having a heart for farming – we’ve always had the mind for a simple life – one where we get “back to the basics” and desire to be as independent and self-sustaining as possible.

When we started discussing our next steps for sustainability, we gravitated towards sheep.  Sheep are raised for fleece (wool), meat (lamb or mutton), and milk.  Christine has been into handcrafts since college, and has always like working with wool (primarily knitting, but some spinning as well).  I liked the idea of the sheep’s versatility beyond just wool production (as opposed to alpacas or llamas), and since they are smaller than the cattle and horses I grew up with (given our current farm’s size of only 5 acres), they seemed to be a good place to start!

Once we decided on sheep – then came the question “what breed”?  While the typical modern breeds made more sense, we have a tendency to do things differently.  We visited Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia for our Twentieth Anniversary and were fascinated with the rare breeds program and how they are striving to provide a historically accurate representation of the breeds that were on farms during the founding of our country.  We loved the idea of becoming involved with a livestock conservancy program to preserve a part of our history for the future; and spent the next year studying and preparing our farm.

**** For more details, please reference http://www.history.org/history/teaching/enewsletter/volume2/january04/techtips.cfm and http://www.leicesterlongwool.org/ ****

You’ll hear several names that refer to the same breed of sheep:

  • Bakewell Leicester
  • Dishley Leicester
  • English Leicester
  • New Leicester
  • Improved Leicester
  • Leicester Longwool

Robert Bakewell was a British agriculturalist who lived in Dishley, Leicestershire, England and was known for being the first to implement systemic selective breeding of livestock.  “His ideas, which were as revolutionary as the political ideas that swept through the colonies, forever changed livestock farming.”  

The Leicester’s became very popular and were exported widely in the 1700’s.

·        “Within little more than half a century the New Leicester had spread themselves over every part of the United Kingdom and to Europe and America”.  William Youatt, 1837

·       An excerpt of Maryland State Agricultural Society from the American Farmer in 1840:   “The first annual fair of this society, took place under the direction of the trustees, agreeably to notice, on the 16th inst., which was considered the best exhibition of stock ever exhibited in Maryland.  A large number of farmers presented themselves and became members of the society, many of whom brought with them fine specimens of stock of the various improved breeds.  . . . Among the sheep exhibited, it was gratifying to find a fine sample from the celebrated flocks of Mr. Barney, of Delaware, of the Bakewell breed.

·       On Robert Bakewell:  http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast?a=d&d=OW19060221.2.11.1.  This is an AWESOME article about Robert Bakewell by William Housman written on 21 February 1906.  Even down to sizes of a ram back in 1770!

As selective breeding continued into the 19th century, the Leicester contributed genetically to numerous modern breeds, but quickly fell out of favor as market preferences in meat and textiles changed. 

·       It is a single irony of the American sheep industry that as it came of age, the progenitor of modern sheep breeding – the Leicester Longwool – was lost.”  Bruce Kalk 1994, Taking Stock, The North American Livestock Census.

So, there you go!  We now have a sustainable source of meat on our little farm . . . while we enjoy the wool by-products that are shorn every year . . . all while we’re honoring the past, with an eye to the future.