Shropshire Ewe – Painted paper collage and gold leaf on panel 30 x 24 inches
The Welsh Marches, from the Medieval Latin Marchia Walliae, once formed a buffer zone of counties between England from the semi-autonomous Principality of Wales. Today the Marches consist of Shropshire to the north and Herefordshire to the south. The geography of the area is varied. Some of it has always been prized agricultural land, but there are also hills and heaths which are not suitable for growing crops, but very suitable for grazing sheep. The Shropshire Sheep is a product of this region. It is thought to be the descendent of three now extinct native varieties: The Long Mynd, a horned sheep from the high, moorland plateau of the Shropshire hills; the Morfe Common which was a dark-faced sheep with small horns and fine wool; and the grey-faced Cannock Chase which came from the enclosed land of the former Cannock forest in neighbouring Staffordshire. It may have been improved by the Clun Forest, Leicester, and Cotswold breeds as well. By the mid-1800s, it was a recognizable breed known by the name Shropshire Sheep making it one of the oldest recognised British breeds of sheep. A Shropshire Breed Society and Flock Book were created by devoted breeders in 1882.
The Shropshire was first imported into Canada in 1861, probably by the Miller family in Ontario who maintained a flock continuously until 1996. Between 1885 and 1895 twenty-thousand Shropshires were exported from Britain to supply the growing world market. By 1908 the sheep was one of the most popular in Canada, second only to the Leicester. Commonly referred to as The Farm Flock Favourite, by the 1920s the Shropshire was possibly the most popular and influential breed of sheep in North America.
Page from the Flock Book of the Shropshire Sheep Breeders Association, 1897
The popularity of Shropshires was due to their many excellent qualities. They are docile, medium-sized sheep with a ‘blocky’ body shape, ie. short in the leg and long in the back, which is desirable for meat production. They are white with brown ears, eyes, noses and legs and are covered in wool from their nose to their toes, and grow a good, medium –fine, dense fleece of around 2.5 kg in weight. They are excellent grazers who produce heavy, lean carcasses on poor pasture. The rams, who weigh between 90 and 140 kg, are excellent terminal sires for meat production with other breeds. Shropshire ewes weigh between 65 and 90 kg and are prolific. Their lambing rate can run as high as one hundred and ninety percent. The abundant, rich milk also makes excellent cheese. Lambs gain weight extremely quickly without grain and can be finished on grass alone.
Photo from the 1897 Flock Book showing the traditional Shropshire type.
The decline of the Shropshire was due to a combination of factors. In the 1940s, American breeders began to take the ‘wool from the nose to toes’ wool cover of the breed to the extreme. They also bred for shorter, stockier sheep. This resulted in animals which were too small, difficult to shear, and prone to ‘wool blindness’ – they were so covered in wool that they could not see. In Britain the Shrop’s decline was due to trade disruption caused by two world wars, hoof and mouth disease outbreaks which made it impossible to export British sheep, and reduced demand for large roasts of lamb and mutton.
Sheep breeders in Britain came to prefer larger, taller sheep with less wool around the legs and face. American breeders eventually followed suit with the result that the breed was severely altered.
American Yearling Shropshire Ewes (©2009 Steven Walling, Wikimedia Commons)
Although the wool-covered, stocky, old-fashioned Shropshire is nearly gone, the modern, open-faced version has rebounded to the extent that it was removed from the UK Rare Breeds Survival Trust conservation list in 2013. The renewed interest in the breed in Britain and Europe is due to one of the Shrop’s more unusual and previously unrecognized traits: it is the only breed of sheep that doesn’t strip the bark off fruit trees or eat the leaves of conifers. This behavioural quirk has made it a popular lawn-mower in orchards and Christmas tree plantations.
In Canada the Shropshire’s numbers went into serious decline in the 1950s and have never recovered. From a population which once numbered in the thousands, perhaps one hundred and forty registered Shropshires remain in the entire country.
Old-fashioned Canadian Shropshire ewes (photo courtesy of Rare Breeds Canada)
The Canadian Woolgrowers Co-operative (www.wool.ca)
Dohner, Janet Vorwald: The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds, Yale University Press 2001
Oklahoma State University, Breeds of Livestock , Department of Animal Science (www.ansi.okstate.edu)
Shropshire Breeders Association, The Flock Book of Shropshire Sheep, McCorquodale & Co. 1897
The Shropshire Sheep Breeders Association, UK (www.shropshire-sheep.co.uk)
Staffordshire Working Lives online archive (www.staffspasttrack.org.uk)
Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia (en.wikipedia.com)
Le mouton Shropshire