Farmers want us to ‘Love a Longwool’ to save rare sheep breeds from extinction
PUBLISHED: 12:00 08 May 2020 | UPDATED: 13:01 08 May 2020
Rare livestock enthusiasts in Norfolk have backed a campaign aiming to reverse the decline of native Longwool sheep breeds – by improving their breeding and encouraging more use of their meat and wool.
The Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) has launched a five-year conservation programme to safeguard the future of these striking animals, recognisable by their huge shaggy fleeces and long fringes.
In the latest RBST Watchlist, published in April, six of the nine native UK Longwool sheep breeds were classified as “vulnerable” or “at risk”. While Greyface Dartmoors and Border Leicesters have seen positive growth in their numbers, other breeds such as Lincoln Longwool and Leicester Longwool have declined.
So the “Love a Longwool” campaign aims to improve their chances of survival by promoting the use of their fibre, meat and conservation grazing abilities, while working with breed societies on bespoke breeding programmes to limit in-breeding and maintain genetic diversity, making the Longwools more resilient.
One passionate advocate of Longwool sheep is Daniel Holliday, livestock manager at Church Farm Rare Breeds Centre at Stow Bardolph near Downham Market, which has a small flock of Black Wensleydales – one of a dozen rare native sheep breeds kept at the farm.
He said there were important cultural and traditional reasons for ensuring their survival – but it would also depend on developing markets for their unique wool products and flavoursome, slow-grown meat.
“These animals don’t exist in the wild so if rare breed farms like ourselves don’t look after them and keep the blood-lines right, they would not exist,” he said. “People’s grandparents and great-grandparents would have seen these animals and it would be a real shame if they disappeared for no other reason than the demand for quicker-growing meat animals.
“Some of them go back hundreds of years but as we have grown as a population and there is a higher demand for meat, these breeds have disappeared because they are slower-growing and we as a society need meat that grows quickly - but that does affect the taste and flavour.
“These guys are slow-growing and they tend not to have multiple lambs like the commercial sheep are designed to have. You need to invest more in them to start with, but once you do there is a commercial market for them. You can do so many things with that wool, it is so much more durable and versatile, and the flavour of the meat is much, much greater.
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“When we shear them we really push selling our rare breed fleeces to spinners who are advertising the fact that they are using Black Wensleydale wool to make their products, and where they have come from. Also when we have the kids on the farm, and we have the Black Wensleydales on show, we do a running commentary explaining where they are from. They are such characters too. They can be very stubborn, but they are all unique.
“They are stunning to look at. Usually we have lots of visitors coming in to see these breeds and they will get kids engaged in asking questions, which is really important. That is what gets people interested in rare breeds.”
Mr Holliday said the coronavirus lockdown has temporarily stifled the farm’s ability to educate people about rare breeds. The centre would usually welcome as many as 1,000 visitors a day during its peak Easter weekend, but it is currently closed until the restrictions are eased.
“A lot of companies can shut the doors, turn the lights off, furlough the staff and hopefully not lose too much money,” he said. “But we have still got food and water and vets’ bills and we need wormers and vaccines... it costs a lot of money to run the farm without anything coming back in. We have furloughed a percentage of the staff, the minimum to make sure all the animals are looked after.
“Financially it is very difficult but we are running on the basis that when it is safe to do so we can offer something that is outdoors and unique, and hopefully we can welcome all these people back and be busier than ever.”
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There are nine Longwool sheep breeds native to the UK: Border Leicester, Cotswold, Devon and Cornwall Longwool, Greyface Dartmoor, Leicester Longwool, Lincoln Longwool, Teeswater, Wensleydale and Whiteface Dartmoor.
RBST chief executive Christopher Price said: “These breeds made a huge contribution to rural communities when the UK wool trade was booming and it would be devastating if they were to disappear from our landscapes now.
“In general, the Longwool breeds have seen a steady decline and some of the breeds now have very low numbers. But it is not too late to secure their future, which is why we have launched our new Love a Longwool campaign.”
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