XVII. LIVESTOCK - SHEEP
Sheep - Introduction. Breeds - Sheep Breeds (a) Heavy Breeds; (b) Down and Forest Breeds.
When Fitzherbert so long ago said, "Sheep is the most profitablest cattle that a man have," he expressed an opinion in which agriculturist of the present day fully concur. But if this was true of the flock of time, how much more of the many admirable breed which now cover the rich pastures, the grassy downs and the heath clad mountains of our country. Their flesh is in high estimation with all classes of the community, and constitutes at least one half of all the butcher meat consumed by them. Their fleeces supply the raw material for one of our most flourishing manufactures. They furnish to the farmer an important source of revenue, and the readiest means of maintaining the fertility of his fields.
The distinct breeds and sub-varieties of sheep found in Great Britain are very numerous. We have no intentions of describing them in detail, but shall confine our observations to those breeds which by common consent are the most valuable for their respective appropriate habitats. They maybe fitly classed under three heads-viz., the heavy breeds of the plains, those adapted for downs and similar localities, and the mountain breeds.
Of the first class, the improved Leicester are still the most important to the country. They are more widely diffused in the kingdom than any of their congeners.
Although, from the altered taste of the community, their mutton is less esteemed than formerly, they still constitute the staple breed of the midland counties of England. Leicester rams are also more in demand than ever for crossing with other breeds. It is now about a century since breed was produced by the genius and perseverance of Bakewell, in whose hands they attained a degree of excellence that has probably not yet been exceeded by the many who had cultivated them since his day. The characteristic of this breed are extreme docility, extra ordinary aptitude to fatten, and the early age at which they come to maturity. The most marked feature in their structure is the smallness of their heads, and their bones generally, as contrasted with their weight of carcase. They are clean in the jaws, with a full eye, thin ears, and placid countenance. Their backs are straight, broad, and flat, the ribs arched, the belly carried very light, so that they present nearly as straight a line below as above; the chest is wide, the skin very mellow, and covered with a beautiful fleece of long, soft wool, which weights on the average from 6 to 7 lb. On good soils and under careful treatment this sheep are currently brought to weight from 18 to 20 lb per quarter at 14 months old, at which ate they are now usually slaughtered. At this age their flesh is tender and juicy; but when feeding is carried on till they are older and heavier, fat accumulate so unduly as to detract from the palatableness and market value of the mutton.
Lincolns- These were one time very large, ungainly animals, with an immense fleece of very long wool. By crossing them with the Leicester the character of the breed has been entirely changed, and greatly better. It is now, in fact a sub-variety of the Leicester, with larger frame and heavier fleece than the pure breed. Their wool, however, retains its distinctive characteristics-viz, great length of staple, an unctuous feeling, and in particular, a brightness of luster which adds largely to its value. Sheep of this kind are reared in immense numbers on the wolds and heaths of Lincolnshire, and are sold when about a year old in the wool, and in very forward condition, to the grazier of the fens and marshes, who ultimately bring them to very great weights.
Cotswolds, sometimes called Glosters or New Oxfords, are also large and long-woolled sheep, with good figure and portly gait. Great improvement has been effected in this breed during the last 30 years, in consequence of which they are rising rapidly in public estimation. The qualities for which they are their hardiness docility, rapid growth, aptitude to fatten, and the great weight to which they attain. Their chief defects is that they yield mutton somewhat coarse in the grain and with an undue preponderance of fat. But in addition to their great merits as a pure breed they are especially valuable for the purpose of crossing with Downs and other short-woolled sheep. Of this we shall speak more particularly when we come to notice the Cross-breeds.
Teeswaters.-This breed, found formerly in the vale of Tees, used to have the reputation of being one of the largest and heaviest of our native breeds. They had lighter fleeces than the old Lincolns, but greater aptitude to fatten. Like them, however, they have been so blended with Leicester blood as to have lost their former characteristics. As now met with, they constitute simply a sub-variety of the latter breed.
The Kents or Romney Marsh Sheep, are another distinct long-woolled breed which have much in common with the old Lincolns, although they never equaled them either in the weight or quality of their fleece. They have been much modified by a large infusion of Leicester blood; but as their distinctive qualities fit them well for a bleak and humid habitat, there is now an aversion to risk these by further crossing. As they now exist they are a great improvement upon the old breed of the Kentish marshes; and this is the first instance at least, was the result of crossing rather than selection.
Down and Forest Breeds
The breeds peculiar to our chalky down and other pastures of medium elevation next claim our notice.
Southdowns.- Not long after Robert Bakewell had begun, with admirable skill and perseverance, to bring to perfection his celebrated admirable skill and perseverance, to bring to perfection his celebrated Leicesters, which, as we have seen, have either superseded or totally altered the character of all the heavy breeds of the country, another breeder, Mr. John Ellman of Glynde, is Sussex, equal to Bakewell in judgment, perseverance, and zeal, and wholly devoid of his illiberal prejudice and narrow selfishness, addressed himself to the task of improving the native sheep of the downs, and succeeded in bringing them to as great perfection, with respect to early maturity and fattening power, as they are perhaps susceptible of. Like Bakewell, he early began the practice of letting out rams for hire. This were soon eagerly sought after, and the qualities of his improved flock being rapidly communicated to others the whole race of down sheep has more or less become assimilated to their standard. These improved Southdowns have, in fact, been to all the old forest and other fine-woolled breeds what the Leicester have been to their congeners. Many of them have entirely disappeared, and others only survived in those modifications of he improved Southdown type which are to be found in particular localities. These down sheep possess certain well-marked features which distinguished them from all other breeds. They have a close-set fleece of fine wool, weighing, when the animals are well fed about 4 lb.; their faces weighing, when the animals are well fed, about 4 lb.; their faces and legs are dusky brown colour, their neck slightly arched. Their limbs short, their carcase broad and compact, their offal light, and their buttocks very thick and square behind. They are less impatient of folding, and suffer less from a pasture being thickly stocked with them then any other breed. It is in connection with this breed that the practice of folding as a means of manuring the soil is so largely carried out in the chalk districts of England. It is well ascertained that the injury done to a flock by this practice exceeds the benefits conferred on the crops. Now that the portable manures are so abundant, it is to be hoped that this pernicious practice of using sheep as mere muck machine will be everywhere abandoned.
These sheep are now usually classed as Sussex Downs and Hampshire Downs, the former being the most refined type to the class both as compared with them, having a heavier fleece, stronger bone, and somewhat coarser and larger frame.
The Shropshire sheep, while partaking of the general characteristics of the Southdowns, is so much heavier both in fleece and carcase, and is altogether so much more robust an animal, that in now claims to be ranked as a separate breed. The qualities just referred to as distinguishing it from other downs seem, however, to be the result of selection rather than crossing with other breeds, and thus the Shropshire sheep, while a pure down, is yet so distinct a type from the high breed "Southdown," that is well entitled to be recognized as a distinct and very valuable breed, as had been done bfy the Royal Society, which now assigns it a separate class at its annual meetings. Shropshire rams are eagerly sought after and many breeders of eminence in that country have now their annual sales of this animals. These breed are peculiarly adopted for all parts of England where low grassy hills occur, interspersed with, or in proximity to arable land. In such situations they are prolific, hardy, and easily fattened at an early age. It is to their peculiar adaptation of crossing with the long woolled breeds that they are indebted for their recent and rapid extensions to other districts.
Dorsets.- This breed has from time immemorial been naturalized in the county of Dorset and adjacent parts. They are white faced horned breed, with fine wool, weighting about 4 lb per fleece. They are a hardy and docile race of sheep, of good size, and fair quality of mutton. But the property which distinguishes them form every other breed in Great Britain is the fecundity of the ewes, and their readiness to receive the male at an early season. They have even been known to yean twice in the same year. Being, in addition to this, excellent nurses, they have long been in use for rearing house lambs for the London market. For this purpose the rams are put to them early in June, so that the lambs are brought forth in October, and are ready for market by Christmas. But for this peculiarity, they are ere now have shared the fate of so many other native breeds, which have given place either to the Leicester or Southdowns, according to the nature of the pastures. So long however, as the rearing of early house lambs is found profitable, there is a sufficient inducement to preserver the Dorset breed in their purity, as they are unique in their property of early yeaning.
Read the rest of this article:
Agriculture - Table of Contents