This Report by Christine Roberts
These are the unimproved breeds which are found in regions of the country that have remained geographically remote. They have many similar characteristics but have also developed others to suit their locations.
In general, they are smaller, have coloured fleeces and may be horned. They are hardy, lamb easily, produce flavoursome meat and their fleeces are sought after by hand spinners.
Over thousands of years it is likely that some breeds evolved characteristics by interbreeding before becoming isolated when Britain was cut off from continental Europe. Arriving by the route through Europe via the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts, the Portland shows some characteristics of Roman Merino. A more northerly route was via the Danube corridor, perhaps more mountainous, and the Vikings are sure to have brought sheep of Nordic origin by sea.
As Britain emerged from the Ice Age repeated thawing and freezing through the seasons produced fertile soils which developed into woodland. These were the home of predators and large mammals so sheep (and humans) were pushed to the margins, the coastal belts and uplands where vegetation was more sparse and not as lush.
Comprehensive breed descriptions can be found at www.harcourtrarebreeds.co.uk. I have picked out some characteristics that I found especially interesting.
Portland, a downland sheep with a thick, soft fleece. The single lambs are born with a fox red coat which becomes cream as it matures.
Soay is the most primitive sheep breed in Britain. Its fleece is roo’d i.e. it is plucked or falls away naturally.
Herdwick, the familiar Lake District sheep, are ‘hefted’. They know their patch of fellside and stay there. Escapees from fields will go on an exploratory saunter before returning ‘home’.
North Ronaldsay have a seaweed diet. As arable farming progressed the sheep were walled out of the central fields onto the island shore. It seems a large part of their diet was already seaweed so they continued to thrive.
Many of the sheep breeds are used for conservation grazing. They will browse on poor grass and tough vegetation so that for example birch trees do not become established. Prime examples are Hebridean and Shetland.
Finally, I wonder whether a book has been written about the Castlemilk Moorit story. It was bred relatively recently on an estate in SW Scotland to have an appealing appearance and good quality coloured fleece. As a regular Countryfile viewer I recognised the name Joe Henson who rescued the few surviving animals on behalf of the RBST.
As a programme of breeding for particular qualities continues there may come a time when we wish to return to the gene pool of unimproved stock to reintroduce lost attributes or to start afresh from pure lines.