The Border Leicester Sheep Breed
The Border Leicester is the largest indigenous breed in the British Isles and the purebred is very popular with adults and children alike as a show animal due to it’s very attractive characteristics and oh so elegant prescence.
It is known as the sheep Industries “Great Improver”.
The Border Leicester is one of the British breeds of livestock the origins of which there are no doubts. They are the lineal descendants of the Dishley Leicesters bred and made famous by Robert Bakewell (1726-1795) of Dishley, Leicestershire.
Robert Bakewell followed on the work of arable pioneers Jethro Tull and Lord “Turnip” Townshend but it is in the field of livestock and especially sheep that Bakewell particularly excelled. At this time all sheep were run together, breeding at random resulting in many different breeds all with their own unique, but random characteristics. Bakewell segregated the sexes, allowed mating only to occur deliberately and specifically. He developed a system of breeding termed “in-and-in”, breeding animals of close relationship with each other or line breeding as it is known today. It is thought he started with the old Lincolnshire breed crossing them with the best of the local Leicestershire types and then by breeding “in-and-in” coupled with rigorous selection and culling was able to fix desirable characteristics for improved meat quality and production through pre-potency. This resultant breed Bakewell called the “New Leicester” becoming known as the “Dishley Leicester”.
These New Leicester sheep very quickly found favour with farmers in surrounding counties and Bakewell began hiring his rams out. He started in 1760 hiring at 17sh 6d per ram, by 1786 he let 20 rams for 1000gns and rose to 1200gns for just 3 rams in 1789. The equivalent of approx £90,000 today.
Bakewell established the Dishley Society to monopolise the breed. It’s members were bound by a set of rules designed to maintained the purity of the breed. On Bakewells death, 12 of his neighbours formed themselves into the Bakewell Club and bought up his sheep with the intention of maintaining them.
The Dishley blood found its way north to the Border Counties when in 1767 George & Mathew Culley settled in the Glendale district of Northumberland with some of Bakewells flock. They had both been students of Bakewell in 1763 and after travelling extensively settled as tenant farmers in Northumberland.
These improved Leicesters soon found themselves established on both sides of the Border as a result of the annual sale of both rams and ewes held by the brothers. When these breeders wanted fresh blood they initially had recourse to the members of the Bakewell club who were hiring rams out for prices varying from 50 – 200 gns per season. This continued up until about the 1830s.
By this time there were two distinct types of “Dishley Leicester” evolving in the Borders. The Culley brothers were initially crossing these sheep with the local Teeswater breed but other farmers on the border were crossing in some Cheviot blood. This led to the two variations nicknamed the “Bluecaps” and the “Redlegs”. The Border farmers preferred the hardier Redlegs and by about 1850 this variation of the “Dishley Leicester” became known as the “BORDER LEICESTER”
The “Border Leicester” very quickly became popular and by the time “The Society of Border Leicester Sheep Breeders” was founded and the first flock book printed in 1898 the breed had spread as far north as Wick, Caithness and across to Ireland.
Probably the pre-eminent breeder at that time was the Honourable Lord Polwarth, flock 113, Mertoun. White’s Tour published circa 1790, mentions the Mertoun sheep as being little, if anything, inferior to those of Bakewell. Lord Polwarth continued to hire rams from Dishley as well as buying new blood from the Culleys and other Bakewell disciples.
Registered flocks are now found in all parts of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Sheep have been exported widely in the early years particularly to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. More recently to France, Spain, Portugal, Canada, USA, Colombia, British Guiana, India, Japan, Yugoslavia, Iran, Hungary, Russia, China, Turkey & Switzerland.