We used to have sheep. Then we finally admitted the futility but that’s not to say we wouldn’t have the little darlings again (ignore that for the moment). I once, and only once, mentioned having sheep to Farmer Jay, but despite the two feral jobbies that wander aimlessly but somewhat menacingly, around Wellwick Farm, he has no truck for them nor wants a field of them but our Mary had one called Snowflake when she was smallish. I see his point as they are very unreliable and have only one wish in life and that’s to wake up dead, as oft we used to explain on Farmer Relation Days. God must have been having a bad day. Probably a Friday sort of animal like the Duck Billed Platypus but that may have been a Saturday morning animal after a night out. Might do another Farmer Relation Day sometime as we still have the cut-out sheep but as our Alice is somewhat older I doubt if she would wear the ‘Pig’ T-shirt. I digress. Adventure Balloons owner, Kim Hull, keeps sheep. My dog rounded them up once in a nano after he’d spent half a day at it. Anyway I’m pleased to say that the first lamb award goes to him this year. That prize used to go to Farmer Ferrit but he had a few hundred and in years gone by Barry the Guzzi’s daughter used to go and shepherd at lambing. She is now fast heading to becoming a vet which is cracking. Where was I? Oh yes, Kim Hull has some rather lovely Wiltshires. This was just going to be a news item but then I got to thinking that there is a lot more to Wiltshires than you may realise and we are not flying so can’t scare them which you probably can’t as Boudicea used to keep them along with a hermit called Robert who had one and lived near Avebury. If you tell me its Boudicca I’ll lose interest. My mum had a wicker shopping trolley called Boudicea so Boudicea it is. In Bucks we don’t use the letter ‘H’ so its pronounced Bo-De-see-‘er. Anyway her mates called her Bouds.
Wiltshires are described as ‘a larger sheep', bred for meat rather than wool. They are one of the better looking sheep with their slightly pointed head and neat nose. To be honest I do have a soft spot for them as they are one of the most ancient of the English sheep, originating, as the name suggests in Wiltshire, where such places as Stonehenge and Salisbury Plain are. Archaeological digs on Stone Age sites has turned up a very similar breed that was only slightly smaller than the Wiltshire so in my mind no contest then. Some say that they were introduced by the Romans but more likely the ones we see today are the result of the Italian jobbies breeding with the smaller sheep that were already here. In the 18th century numbers started to seriously decline as land become more cultivated, sheep were raised more commercially for wool rather than meat and cross breeding became popular to ‘improve’ local breeds with the Wiltshire ending up being largely crossed with Merino. Yup, Salisbury Plain hasn’t always been driven over by tanks and shelled by the army. Once it was a very fertile area where raves were held and people came for miles to get in the groove as the moon changed direction in Spring.
Proper Wiltshires are unusual for two reasons. Firstly both the ewe and ram have horns, the rams grow a coil a year, and secondly they moult, as in shed their coat, so don’t need shearing, dipping and don’t get clobbered by the many afflictions that normally affect sheep like getting fly-strike or a waterlogged coat in heavy rain and falling over, nor do they require dagging or shearing, both thankless tasks. Their coat comprises an outer coat of bristly hair known as kemp which they shed and an underlying coat of down or fine wool. On top of all that they have the very unsheep-like ability to love surviving. Sorry, cut that thought off. Should have gone onto say ‘actually surviving’ cold and hot weather alike without shelter and their lambs are just as hardy, born easily with a serious high tog fleece. The ewes make really good mothers so the survival rate unattended is very high. Now in Kim Hull’s case I’m sure that helps as he oft says “Sheep? Where did they come from?” As one of the very few breeds of sheep reckoned to be pretty natural to the British Isles and perfectly suited to the climate they are nigh on the perfect British sheep. Hardy is a term I would use. Not that ‘Hardy’ who was at Nelsons’ side but maybe his family were Wiltshire sheep breeders. Who knows?
As already mentioned, just pretend this is a documentary and the adverts have just finished so, to fill in lest you think you’ve lost the thread, they go over what was said during the last bit. Primarily Wiltshires are a meat sheep the lambs reaching slaughter weight by 16 weeks. Apologies if you are not a meat eater. By the end of the 19th century pure bred Wiltshire numbers were seriously falling and by the 20th century they were pretty rare. Turns out though that there were a few conscientious breeders who still had flocks of the original strain which were well recorded and were keen to keep them going as a breed. Just so happens that mainly they were not only in North Wales, but also around Aylesbury and Northampton. In 1923 the ‘Wiltshire or Western Sheep Breeders Association’ was formed in an attempt to save them. The first chairman was a Mr J S Roads from Aylesbury. Wicked, a local bloke who wore a natty cap and shades (third from the left on the little piccie, fifth from the left if you click on it). Probably a early saxophonist like Zoot, intent on saving the farming heritage of the country. A Flock Book was started and in Bucks 255 sheep were entered. In Northamptonshire, ‘whose Inspectors were very strict’, considerably fewer were registered. The last inspections took place in 1927 and by the early 1930s the organisations name had changed to the Wiltshire Horn Sheep Society. Despite the increasing numbers the Wiltshire was still a threatened species but things turned around in the 1980s when the production of wool bearing sheep became uncompetitive with the huge surge in synthetic materials for clothing and fabrics that had come in during the 60s and 70s. With the backing and help of the Rare Breeds Society, who got us interested in Jacob, Soay (another self shedding sheep) and Herdwick, attention turned back to the Wiltshire and now they are now one of the most popular breeds of meat sheep. This is the Gedwwydd Angleseyt flock back in 1949. My dog (Welsh sheepdog) has this on the wall above her sofa.
Interlude. I quite liked the Soays. They were small and very independent. They date from the Iron-Age and are a cross between cheetah and kangaroo in their performance. The first meeting with my collie at the time resulted in the poor girl almost having a nervous breakdown as they shot in all directions at the same time. I expect Polly would have a solution. Interestingly even in the olden days they are often crossed with Wiltshires. The warmest socks I have were made one of our Jacob's wool. The Jacob has made a bit of a comeback. Although classed an ancient breed they have probably only been here since the 16th century. The Herdwick, if I remember correctly, was rather sweet and hippie-like. The sheep equivalent of the Jersey cow. They are reputedly unchanged since they arrived with the Vikings and live in the Lake District and help saved from extinction by Beartrix Potter amongst others. Thankfully they are once again the sheep of the Lake District. Best we do a bit on Beatrix as she loved collies as well.
Seeings as this just started as a news item, suddenly here I am all reminiscing about the lovely times we had with them. Always seems better looking back. Anyway, down a narrow lane with a sheepdog and flock of sheep and back to the Wiltshires, thing is by 2010 there were over 300 registered flocks and they are now on the up and well off the endangered list, in no small part thanks to Kim Hull. Story is that an old chap asked if he could graze them in his field. Kim said “Yes, no problem”, and the old chap passéd away. This lamb, no doubt will be called ‘Covid’. Be a bit of a wotsit if its flock number is 19. In these days of climate change and the preference for meat rather than wool they may well be the sheep of the future. Such is their popularity they can now be found in an amazing number of countries including Egypt, New Zealand, Trinidad and Ghana amongst many others. Naturally they have, over the years, been subjected to crossing so what you see may not always be pure bred. Never mind they are still here and although they do seem to have their own mind on account of their antiquity they are lovely things. Never thought I’d say that about sheep. I know, bit like a kebab, we’ll get some more just to remind ourselves why we stopped having them.
Thanks to learned friends, history and the Wiltshire Horn Sheep Society and Kim Hull for having them, so’s to speak. If you click on the pictures they should get bigger.
https://www.rbst.org.uk/ -Rare Breeds Survival Trust
www.wiltshirehorn.org.uk - Wiltshire Horn Sheep Society