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Sheep Breeds, their characteristics, history and things to look out for

Charollais Sheep


The breed originates in France from the famous Saone et Loire area where it runs alongside the Charolais cattle. The breed was developed in the 19th Century from local breeds crossed with the British Dishley Leicester. Since that time it has remained pure and today the Flock Book is run from the town of Charolles after which the area, sheep and cattle are named. The breed was first imported into the UK in 1976 and has also spread into many European countries, China, Africa, Canada and the US.


The Charollais is a medium to large sized sheep, long, well muscled with thick, deep gigots. The body is long with a well muscled broad loin and wide deep chest. The head is free from wool, pinkish/fawn in colour sometimes with spots. The line of the shoulders should retain a wedge shape which is so important for ease of lambing. The legs are clean, quite short, coloured but never very dark. The front legs should not be set too wide apart and the animal must be well balanced. The gigots are well developed, thick and deep. The breed is primarily a terminal sire and the fleshing quality is of the highest importance. Excessive bone is undesirable in the breed. The fleece is white, fine and dense, the staple length quite short.

Main Purpose of Breed

The Charollais breed is now firmly established within the UK sheep sector a a major terminal sire. Figures from the Meat and Livestock Commission show that the breed commands 20% of the terminal sire market in the UK. Charollais rams are used to cross onto the UK’s commercial ewe breeds i.e. mules, half breds, Lleyns to produce a high quality, lean lamb carcase. It is the breeds intrinsic qualities of fast growth, lean heavy fleshing and conformation that make it the ideal sire of meat lambs from today’s consumer. The end product is the breed’s main consideration but the breed is also extremely ‘farmer friendly’. The shape and bone structure of the breed ensures trouble free lambing. This aspect of the breed is unusual for such a muscular meat breed. Ease of birth leads to lively, vigorous lambs.

Jacob Sheep


The Jacob sheep is an alert, active sheep being upstanding and deep bodied. White with well defined black patches. Head and neck generally black with a white blaze on the face extending down the chest. Both sexes are horned.


Clear of wool forward of horns. It is desirable that there be a clear white blaze with even black cheeks. In Adult sheep pink noses in conjunction with broad white face undesirable. A dark nose preferred. Dark bold eyes preferred with no tendency to split eye-lid deformity. Ewes should have a fine feminine appearance, whilst that of a ram should be thicker set and masculine.


Sheep should carry horns in the number of two or four. Where there are four the top pair should grow upward from the top of the head and have no forward growing tendencies. There should preferably be space between the top and lower horns. Where there are just two horns there should preferably be space between the roots of the horns at the crown of the head, and grow so as to leave space between horn and cheek. Black horns are preferred. They should at all times give the animal freedom from injury and comfort when feeding.


Strong, of medium length, well set on shoulder


Back – straight, level from base of neck to setting on the tail, which should be broad. Well sprung ribs, body well let down, forming a good bottom line. Tail to be well set up on chine with well developed thigh.


Medium boned of medium length, clear of wool below knee and hock. Preferably white with little or no black.


Of a medium quality, white with well defined black patches. It is preferred that skin beneath the white wool be a good pink, and black beneath the dark wool. There should be little or no kemp. Mottled wool and skin is undesirable.

Wensleydale Sheep


Originated in North Yorkshire early in the 19th Century from a cross between a long since extinct local longwool breed from the region of the River Tees and an outstanding Dishley Leicester ram named “Bluecap”. The breed was developed to produce hardy rams for crossing onto hill ewes, together with high quality and valuable lustre fleeces.

The breed is probably unique in that its Association is able to not only identify a foundation sire, but also trace that ram’s parentage, year and place of birth and breeder. “Bluecap” was born in 1839 in the hamlet of East Appleton, five miles NNW of Bedale in North Yorkshire . His unique qualities, which determined the breed type without any further infusion of Leicester blood, were his dark skin, superb quality of wool and size – 203 kgs (448 lbs) as a two shear. The breed type was not named until 1876, when a name was required for classes at the Yorkshire Show. Two rival breed Societies were formed in 1890, amalgamating in 1920.

Breed Description

The Wensleydale is a very large longwool sheep, described by the British Meat and Livestock Commission as “probably the heaviest of all our indigenous breeds”. It is a visually striking sheep with considerable presence . It has bold and alert carriage which is accentuated by its broad, level back on wide quarters and strong thighs. It has a distinctive deep blue head and ears, which should be clean except for a well developed forelock of wool, usually referred to as the “topping”. Both sexes are polled.

Purpose of the Breed

The Wensleydale breed has been developed to provide rams for crossing onto hill ewes, mainly Swaledale, Blackface, Rough Fell, Cheviot and Dalesbred and latterly Beulah, to produce a prolific, milky and hardy breeding ewe (the original Masham) and also a wether which can produce under natural conditions on marginal ground a quality carcass at higher weight with no excess fat. The Wensleydale ram gives that extra size and quality to its cross bred progeny, enabling any recognised terminal sire to fulfil its potential.
A Wensleydale ewe will produce two lambs with minimal lambing problems. Twin lambs average 6 kgs each at birth with a growth rate that enables ram lambs to reach 73 kgs at 21 weeks and be used with confidence on hill breed ewes in the autumn.

Though developed as a Crossing Sire the Wensleydale is equally well known for the exceptionally high quality of its lustrous Wool, making it an outstanding dual purpose sheep. Wensleydale wool is the finest and most valuable lustre longwool in the world. Fleeces are of 20 – 30 cms staple length and 33 – 35 micron thickness, with yearling fleeces weighing from 6 to 9 kgs. Fleeces are entirely kemp free as a result of the unique characteristics of the wool-producing follicles. This special quality is genetically transmitted to cross-bred lambs, characterising the Wensleydale ram as perhaps the leading wool improver sire in the world. Wensleydale wool is used for its special effects and handle in hand knitting yarn, knitwear and cloth and sometimes in upholstery fabrics. Because of its similarity, it is regularly used to blend with mohair.

Suffolk Sheep


The Suffolk evolved from the mating of Norfolk Horn ewes with Southdown rams in the Bury St Edmunds area, these sheep were known as Southdown Norfolks, or locally, as “Black faces.”

The first recording is in 1797 when in his “General view of agriculture in the county of Suffolk” Arthur Young stated: “These ought to be called the Suffolk breed, the mutton has superior texture, flavour, quantity and colour of gravy.”

The first classes to exhibit Suffolk Sheep were at the Suffolk Show in 1859. The first flock book was published in 1887. This contained 46 flocks ranging in size from 50 to 1,100 ewes and averaging 314 ewes. All 46 flocks were in East Anglia and 34 were in Suffolk itself. The oldest was that of E.P. & H. Frost of West Wratting , established in 1810.

Suffolks developed around the rotational system of farming in East Anglia, grazing on grass or clover in the summer. After weaning the ewes could be put on salt marshes or stubbles. Swedes, turnips or mangels were grazed in the winter in a very labour intensive system with a fresh area fenced off each day. Lambing was in February or March, outdoors in the fields with a hurdle shelter or in open yards surrounded by hurdles and straw.

The breed expanded rapidly, with the first flock in Ireland established in 1891, in 1895 in Scotland and 1901 in Wales . From the earliest days sheep were exported around the world, to Austria, France, Germany, Switzerland , Russia, North and South America and the colonies.

Originally renowned as a producer of mutton, the breed has developed over the years to match consumer demands. Suffolks are now found throughout the world’s sheep producing countries. They are the flag-ship breed in the British Isles and recognised as the leading terminal sire on a variety of ewes to produce top quality prime lamb.

The exceptional growth rate of the Suffolk contributes to their outstanding performance and popularity as the leading terminal sire in the British Isles .

Ultimately the Suffolk ‘s rapid growth rate unlocks potential and opportunity for quick production of lean meat with minimum costs, with carcass weights of lambs averaging 18kg – 21kg at slaughter.

All figures sourced from MLC

Boarder Leicester Sheep

Bread Description

A distinctive large white sheep, long in body, well sprung in ribs with well-developed chest and gigot, proud and graceful. The best description of the Border Leicester can be given from a detailed account of a shearling ram at about 18 months old. He will stand about 81 cm at the shoulder, measure 102cm from crown to tail; have a wide level back, well and evenly fleshed and firm under hand; and well sprung ribs with a level underline. White wool of even quality, densely planted with a good staple length should cover the whole body.

The head should be thoroughly masculine, have a well-developed muzzle with wide black nostrils. Eyes should be clear, bold and dark; ears a good length, carried at an alert angle and covered with hair; the crown smooth and clear of wool; and teeth regular and meet the pad. The neck, tapering nicely from the head, should be strongly set at the shoulders; the back should be long, level and well fleshed; the gigot well filled; legs must be squarely set under the body, strong with clean flat bones and covered with white hair, free from wool; and the feet should be sound and dark in colour. If the ram has all these desirable characteristics, he will be evenly balanced and able to move freely with style.

A similar description applies to the female, making due allowances for the difference in sex. Liveweight of a mature ram will range from 125 to 170kgs, & a mature ewe 80 to 120kgs. At 56 days, the average eye muscle is 28mm and back fat scan 1.2 to 3mm.The fleece of rams weighs 5.4 to 9kgs, a females from 3.6 to 6.4kgs, grade of wool 48/50 Bradford (29.25 to 32 Micron).


Border Leicester sheep are the lineal descendants of the Dishley Leicesters made famous by Robert Bakewell of Dishley, Leicestershire (1726-95). Introduced into Northumberland in 1767 by the Brothers Culley who were pupils of Bakewell, these improved Leicesters were soon established on both sides of the Border. New bloodlines continued to be introduced from Dishley, and after Bakewell’s death, the Northern breeders continued to hire and purchase rams from the south. This practice ceased in about 1850, when the Northern breeders had established a type of sheep which differed from that favoured in the south, and they began to call their sheep, Border Leicester.

For over 100 years, all pure-bred Border Leicesters (male and female) have been tattooed in both ears and registered in the official Flock Book of the Breed Society. Registered flocks are found in Scotland, England, Wales, and Ireland and membership is now open. Sheep have been exported to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, France, Spain, Portugal, Canada, USA, Colombia, British Guiana, India, Japan, Yugoslavia, Iran, Hungary, Russia, China, Turkey and more recently, Switzerland and Dubai.

Kerry Hill

History of the Breed

The Kerry Hill Breed is from Powys, on the English/Welsh borders, and it derives its name from the village of Kerry, near Newtown. There are records of this distinctive breed in this area dating back to 1809, and the first Flock Book was published in 1899 with 26 Members.
Registered Kerry Hill Sheep can be found throughout the British Isles, Ireland and Holland.


A well balanced sturdy sheep with ears set high and free from wool. A black nose and sharply defined black and white markings on the head and legs. Both ewes and rams are hornless. It is a handsome sheep, with a dense fleece, which is usually white. The fleece handles well, and is amongst the softest of British Wools. Average staple length is 10 cm (14 inches). Average weight of fleece is 2.75kgs (6lbs). Bradford count 54-56’s.

In both ewes and rams, teeth should be regular and should meet the pad neither undershot or overshot. The weight of a mature ram will range from 65 to 70kgs. A mature ewe will weigh from 55kg to 65kg+. The Kerry Hill sheep are good on their feet and good in their teeth.

Zwartbles Sheep

About the Breed

The Zwartbles breed has many outstanding characterisitcs, including:

Easy lambing
Prolific and milky ewes
Excellent mothers
Fast growth rate
Naturally tame

Since the beginning of the last century, dairy farmers in the Freisland region of Holland have kept Zwartbles Sheep, a strikingly handsome black sheep with a distinctive white blaze.
Freisland lies in the North of Holland, and these beautiful and elegant sheep serve as dual purpose animals – meat and milk. The north of Holland can be very cold, wet and windy, but their fleeces are able to keep them warm, being very thick and fine.
Due to changes in farming practices, numbers of Zwartbles in Holland became severely reduced until the breed was adopted by the Dutch Rare Breed Survival trust in the mid-1970s. Later, in 1985, a group of breeders in Holland started a ‘Flock Book’ and the initiative has gone from strength to strength!

In the last few years, a small number of Zwartbles sheep have been imported by enthusiasts to Great Britain, and this lead to the formation of the Zwartbles Sheep Association in 1995. There are now 236 registered Zwartbles flocks (a total of about 5285 sheep) spread throughout the UK, and they are well able to cope with the lowland and mid-altitude conditions in England, Wales, and Scotland.

The meat from Zwartbles sheep is very lean and sweet, and it has a very good ratio of live:dead weight. Additionally, the milk is a rich and healthy alternative to that of other breeds.
Zwartbles are a docile and friendly sheep, and they a naturally polled (i.e. have no horns).
The ewes are very prolific and milky, and well able to feed their triplets without assistance. They are also easy lambers because of the breed’s long, narrow head and wide pelvis.
Good conformation is the most important characteristic in the breed, but ideal markings areas follows:

A complete facial blaze;
A white tip to the tail;
Two to four white socks;
Zwartbles sheep must not have docked tails!

An interesting development is the recent use of Zwartbles rams as an alternative to a Border Leicester ram for crossing with Swaledale ewes to produce a “black mule”.
The Zwartbles has many of the characteristics of the Leicester that are considered desirable for cross breeding, including its large frame, prolific nature, milky ewes, and fast growth rate. However, the Zwartbles is considered by many to have a superior conformation that can be passed down to the next generation of “butcher’s lambs”.

Other breeders, aware of the Zwartbles’ reputation for rapid growth rate and a low fat carcase, are successfully using the rams as terminal sires.

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