of the breed
The Leicester sheep appears to have inhabited Leicestershire
and it’s neighbouring counties for a long period before
it was “improved”.
“Cheap and Good Husbandry” (twelfth edition) written
by Markham in 1668, mentions, on writing about the sheep of
the Midlands at that time, “that the sheep of Worcestershire,
many parts of Warwickshire, Leicestershire and part of Nottinghamshire,
beareth a large boned sheep, of the best shape, and deepest
staple; chiefly they be pasture sheep, yet their wool is coarser
than that of Costal” (Cotswold).
It is therefore believed that there is no reason to assume
that from many of the characteristics presented by the wool
of the “new” Leicester breed that the parent stock
was any other than the Long-woolled sheep of the Midland Counties.
was this ordinary sheep of his district that Robert Bakewell
used in bringing out his New Leicester’s or Dishley
Breed, apparently without having recourse to crossing, but
by a confident reliance upon selection only. Bakewell’s
success was due to his firm faith in the power of animals
to transmit their good qualities to their progeny, and a rigid
determination to adhere to the type that he wished to produce.
This was beauty of form, utility of form, early maturity and
good fattening properties, he was apparently a little careless
with regard to wool. How he went about his improvement, very
little is known, Bakewell being a very positive, secretive
and self reliant man, he left no records. He was a farmer
who worked without ostentation, but his influence spread itself
all over the world.
Robert Bakewell, of Dishley, Loughborough, Leicestershire,
commenced the improvement of his county breed of sheep in
or about 1755. He possessed the ability of being able to realise
properties of the parents to be transmitted to the offspring.
The result of his work was the formation of an improved sheep,
more symmetrical, thicker and deeper, with earlier maturity
and better finishing qualities. At this time the wool was
Bakewell’s success is probably best indicated by the
appreciation in which his sheep were held. It was stated that
his first rams offered for “letting” only made
17s 6d each, the price rose to 100gns in 1786 for the letting
of his stock. In 1789 he made 1,200 gns by letting three rams
and a further 2,000gns for seven other rams, he made a further
3,000gns by letting the remainder of his rams to the Dishley
Society, a group of local farmers.
The Leicester sheep bequeathed to us by Bakewell could be
described as white faced, hornless covered with a fleece having
a length of 7-8 inches long, still of a somewhat coarse wool.
The points were described as: Lips and nostrils black, nose
slightly narrow and roman, but the general face being wedge
shaped and covered in white hair; forehead covered in wool,
although not always the case at that time, no horns, ears
thin, long and mobile; a black speck on face or ear was not
uncommon at that time; a good eye, short neck and level back;
thick and tapering from skull to shoulders and bosom; breast
deep, wide and prominent; shoulders upright and wide over
the top; great thickness from blade to blade or “through
the heart”; well filled up behind the shoulders, giving
great girth; well sprung ribs, wide loins, level hips, straight
and long quarters, tail well set on, good legs of mutton,
round barrel, great depth of carcass, fine bone, a fine curly
fleece free from black hairs, well covered back and loins,
firm flesh, springy pelt, pink skin. The general form of the
carcase square or rectangular, legs well set on, straight
hocks, good pasterns, neat feet.
At that time it was stated that the Leicester sheep was best
fattened when from twelve to fifteen months of age, the carcase
weighing about 80 – 100 lbs. Although the use of Mutton
is now not so popular, purebred Leicester sheep are still
able to finish early and well.
For the greater part of the 19th centaury the Leicester held
it’s own as a commercial sheep, but in the 1920s and
1030s demand for a small lean carcase became the norm and
it was gradually replaced by other breeds. It is still, although
only one or two flocks, in the North of England, farmed commercially
due to it’s ability to do well on less favourable pasture
and especially to survive the extremes of the winters, and
at lambing time the lambs having a better covering of wool
and the ability to get up quickly.
Since the formation of the Leicester Sheep Breeders’
Association in 1893, in Driffield, North Yorkshire, (now the
home of the Leicester Longwool), later to become the Leicester
Longwool Sheepbreeders’ Association, great attention
has been paid to it’s development, the result being
a larger leaner sheep with better quality and weight of wool
whilst retaining its old characteristics of early maturity
and rapid finishing. Sadly the national flock is in decline
through no fault of the breed itself.