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History of the Wiltshire Horn

Old Wiltshire Horned Breed
The Old Wiltshire Horned Breed as seen by Professor David Low when making his illustrations of the various breeds of domestic animals in 1841.

Origins
 

As with all domesticated sheep, the exact origins of the Wiltshire Horn breed is obscure, although skeletons found at the excavations of a Romano-British farm at Rockbourne Down in Wiltshire and other stone age sites indicate the presence of similar sheep which stood a mere 2 inches shorter than the modern Wiltshire. Many consider the origins to lie with the European Moulflour or wild sheep which still flourish in Corsica and Sardinia and that these were introduced to Britain by the Romans. Others say that the Phoenicians bartered them for copper and tin from the mines of South West England, although there is no mention of this in any contemporary documents.

The truth of the breeds' introduction is never likely to be known and it is not until the 18th Century that hard documentary evidence emerges that indicates the dominance of the Wiltshire, or Western, Horn in the downland sheep walks of Wiltshire. The land there varies from being rich in the valleys and poor on the hilltops and was populated by Olde Wiltshire Horned Sheep. Common grazings were tended by the village shepherd and the sheep returned each night to be penned on arable land. A contemporary writer, Luccock, noted in 1794: "The traveller will observe how well the animals that graze the Wiltshire Downs, in their structure and their habitude, are suited to the soil. These farms require an animal lithe and active, able to pass without injury over a large space in a little time; to climb without difficulty the most abrupt steeps; to endure the heat of summer without shelter and to subsist on the herbage which it could crop from the driest downs. The flock had to travel far on such pastures from morning to evening and in circumstances like these everyone who observes the Wiltshire Horned breed of sheep will find it adapted to its structure, disposition and lightness of fleece." He also notes: "The sheep that used to be kept on the downs were the Wiltshire Horned ones with large head and eyes, chest tolerably wide and deep, back straight, legs looking somewhat awkwardly long and bones too large. The fleece weighed about 2lbs and the ewe had not any wool under her belly."

In the 1950s Mr. E. H. Lane Poole investigated the origin of these sheep in their native country and noted: "Wiltshire has long been pre-eminent for its flocks of sheep and 18th Century writers were ecstatic about the incredible numbers they saw grazing on Salisbury Plain". He asserts that sheep in the Middle Ages were classified in two types; those carrying long wool represented by the Lincoln and Cotswold breeds and those with the short staple derived from the mountain sheep of Wales and located in England in the counties of Shropshire and Herefordshire. "It is from the Welsh Mountain Sheep that the Wiltshire flocks with a medium wool are thought to have originated", he claims.


 

Although no description has survived, the Middle Ages had evolved a distinctive breed. Davis ("A General View of Agriculture in Wiltshire, 1794 - 18") observes that its very large size was the result of judicious breeding from a smaller animal.

It is interesting to compare the main features of the 18th Century Wiltshires, as recorded by an eminent contemporary writer on livestock, with those of their modern counterparts:


 

250 Years Ago
 
Present Day
Large head
 
Medium head
Large eyes
 
Large eyes
Roman nose
 
Roman nose
Wide nostrils
 
Wide nostrils
Horns bending down cheeks
 
Horns bending down but away from cheeks
Colour - all white
 
Color - white with black tips
Wide bosoms
 
Wide bosoms
Back rather straight
 
Back straight with prominent shoulders
Carcass substantial
 
Carcass substantial
Fine wool very thin on belly, sometimes bare
 
Fine wool intermixed with hair. Legs and belly hair


 

At the end of the 18th Century several estimates put the summer stock of Wiltshire Horns in South East Wiltshire alone at around 500,000 and of the total population in the Downs and pastures of Wiltshire at 700,000. It was universally agreed that the breed was the general stock. Nevertheless, the breed had been in decline during the century, not because it was losing favour per se, but rather as a result of changes in general farming practice, which increasingly became to plough the land. A contemporary writer states in the early 19th century: "In the 18th century these Wiltshire Horns had more or less a monopoly of the plain. Originally the Wiltshire sheep were not the general stock of the county but it is certain that no man living at the end of that century could remember when they were not the general stock and it is also certain that until within these last few years they were thought to answer the particular purpose of the district - dung, wool and carcass - more than any other kind".
 

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Breeding

A revolution in the sheep industry in Britain was started by Robert Bakewell (1725 - 95) with his experiments on the Leicestershire breed. In Wiltshire, the change from arable practice of the pastoral and the farmers' desire to improve their local sheep led to the first inroads into the breeding of the Wiltshire Horn, marking the decline of the native breed.

Whilst the introduction of Southdowns and Ryelands was seen in the county, it was the Merino which influenced the local flock-master more. A small flock of Merinos had been given to King George III by the King of Spain, leading to the importation in 1800 of a larger flock of 1400 ewes and 100 rams. Distributed throughout Wiltshire on the direction of the King, it became fashionable to use the Merinos on our native flocks. Lord Somerville wrote a book recommending the use of a Spanish ram on the Wiltshire "to effect neither more nor less than a great increase of profit out of the fleece, with very little injury if any injury whatever to the form of the animal."
 

What followed was a controversial period of some 50 years during which advocates of cross breeding and devotees of the existing Wiltshire and other native breeds heatedly discussed the merits of each. Only experience would show who was correct and which would be better or worse suited to their environment. In the meantime, the breeding process continued with the Wiltshires becoming "longer in their legs, higher and heavier in their forequarters, perfectly white in their faces and legs, with Roman noses, full eyes and large open nostrils, wide in their bosoms and little or no wool on their bellies, so making them a much larger, handsomer sheep." So wrote Davis, who went on to say that opponents claim the changes had made the sheep less hardy, worse nurses, subject to disorders not known before and likely to reject the food of the downs.

In time, many experiments and observations were made to prove or disprove the varying theories regarding the polled vs. the horned (pure) breeds, although it was left to a century of experience to show that for profitability, health, environmental reasons and quality of product the Wiltshire Horn was hard to beat. During this time the breed was in decline but never became extinct. Several farmers in the early part of the 20th century provided personal evidence of the breeding of the Wiltshire.

Iolo Shephard
The "Gedwydd Flock", established in 1911 by R.H.Owen of Anglesey, was typical of those owned by careful breeders and founder members of the Society. No ewe has been introduced to the flock since its inception and it has won many awards including no less than 16 Royal Champions. Some of the flock is pictured here in 1949.

One such breeder was a Mr. Monck, whose flock comprised some 32 ewes and 20 tegs. Mr. H.G.R. Robinson, M.Sc., lecturer in Agriculture at Reading University, described this flock thus: "The sheep are of the original strain, the only change of blood being imported through the rams. In spite of the lack of flock-book registration hitherto, breeders have not been careless in their matings and have kept their flocks as true to the old line of blood as possible".

He continued: "More careless breeders have crossed their flocks with foreign blood, both Dorset Horn and Border Leicester having been used. However, the effect of the outcrossing is readily discernible in that the sheep produce more wool where this has been followed and those who have aimed for the true type have avoided drawing on this blood. A number of small flocks occur in districts around Aylesbury and Northampton, while a good number of these sheep are kept in North Wales so that the breed is already distributed over a wide area although the numbers are only limited".

These remarks were made in 1923, the year in which the Pedigree of the Wiltshire Horn was established.

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Pedigree Established

The great day in the history of the Wiltshire Horn Sheep was Saturday, January 13th, 1923 when the Wiltshire or Western Sheep Breeders Association was formed. For several weeks before, the leaders of the movement had discussed with other farmers on the various market days at Northampton, Market Harborough, Rugby and other Midland market towns the proposition of establishing a Breed Society. Prominent among them were Mr. Giles Randall, Mr. Edmund Berry, Mr. C. H. Monk and Mr. R. Campion, among others.

At length an invitation typewritten circular was distributed. It read: -
 

Moulsoe Buildings
Newport Pagnall
January 1st, 1923

Dear Sir,

A movement is on foot to place this valuable breed of Sheep on pedigree lines, and a meeting is being held at the Grand Hotel, Northampton, Saturday, January 13th, 1923 at 2 p.m. when many well known breeders have promised to attend, to form a flock book.


The benefits which will accrue to the breeders are manifold and if put on sound pedigree lines, not only will the home demand be stimulated, but a further export trade may be confidently anticipated.

Hoping you will attend,

Yours truly

Giles Randall
Hon. Secretary pro. tem.
 


 

Mr. Randall, who was also interested in the breeding of British Friesian cattle, was on the Council of that Society and had the help of their secretary, Mr. G. Hobbs, in securing the formative outline of the new organisation.

The meeting was duly held and there were present between 30 and 40 interested farmers and potential breeders. Mr. J. S. Roads of Aylesbury was voted to the chair and the first division of opinion came in the first few minutes. It was agreed to form a society, but the title was at once challenged. Mr. Edmund Berry moved and Mr. C. H. Monk seconded that the title be "Wiltshire Horn Sheep Breeders' Association". An amendment followed moved by Mr. R. Campion and seconded by Mr. J. Brodie, that the title be "Wiltshire or Western Horn Sheep Breeders Association". The amendment was carried by 18 votes to 4.

After that there were few disagreements and the following were voted as the Council, "with power to add to their number": Messrs. C. H. Monk, E. Berry, J. B. Morris, J. Brodie, G. Verey, R. Campion, G. Randall, W. H. Wise, L. Lewis and W. B. Southernwood.

The preparation of the Rules of Constitution was referred to the Council but the most important point to be settled was that the Flock Book should be established and that all sheep eligible for registration should be admitted on inspection. The districts were fixed and Messrs. E. Berry, L. Lewis and J. Brodie were appointed inspectors for Northamptonshire; Messrs. J. S. Roads and J. B. Morris for Buckinghamshire and the wider districts such as North Wales were deferred to the future. It was agreed to leave the Flock Book open for 12 months.

The subscription was fixed at 1 guinea and the registration fees as: Stock rams 5s 0d, ewes 1s 0d, ram lambs 2s 6d, ewe lambs 1s 0d.

The first show and sale was fixed for Northampton Ram Fair Day, Sept. 19th.

Twenty-two of the audience became members forthwith and paying their subscriptions on the spot the Association was formally launched. The first Council meeting was held on Feb. 3rd, 1923 and Mr. J. B. Whiting was added to the Council. The officers of the association were appointed honorary secretary at the original first meeting.

At early meetings of the Council other appointments were made including the election of Mr. Giles Randall as chairman of the Council and Mr. T. Norton Merry (of Messrs. Merry Sons and Co. Ltd.) the official auctioneer.

The First Council
The First Council
Standing from left:C.H.Monk, W.Evans, H.Atterbury, J. Clarke Cooper, J.S.Roads, J.Brodie, E.Berry, R.Campion, Giles Randall, G.Verey and T.Norton Merry. Seated: J.F.Reid, W.Wise, J.B.Morris and J.B.Whiting

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Early Days

The first returns of the Inspectors revealed that in Buckinghamshire 255 sheep were accepted whilst in Northamptonshire, whose Inspectors were very strict, considerably fewer were accepted. Their report added that only 1 ram in every 60 submitted passed their test. In Wales, the first inspection took place in the following July and the sheep admitted were 66 rams, 196 ram lambs, 330 ewes and 183 ewe lambs.

History Image
Early members of the Society, including R.H.Owen, left, displaying their Wiltshires at a local Show in North Wales during the 1930s.

1927 was the last year of inspection and after this it was left to members to earmark their selected lambs by registered sires out of registered dams. In about 1931 the word "Western" was omitted from the breed title. Although voting was close, it was agreed that in future the Society would be known as the "Wiltshire Horn Sheep Society".

The depression of the early '30s affected agriculture badly, although it is worthy of note that the price of Wiltshire Horns was maintained remarkably well, unlike many other breeds. As the depression passed trade became healthier and in 1935 the average price for a ram lamb showed an agreeable increase of 20s 0d in the seven years since 1928 - remarkable for an era when inflation was an unknown word!

In the years up to the Second World War prices continued to increase - a ram lamb in 1929 would typically fetch 17 - 18 guineas. By 1937 this had risen to 27 - 28 guineas.

After the difficult years of the war, when registrations fell due in large part to the ploughing up programme, some 23 new members joined the Society, mainly from North Wales.
 

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The Post War Years

Since the war there has been considerable interest in the Wiltshire Horn, particularly from overseas and especially countries with hotter climates. Wiltshires were first sent to Kenya, the Gold Coast, the West Indies, the Bahamas and Zimbabwe. In the 60s further consignments were exported to Venezuela, Argentina, Sri Lanka, Ghana and the Persian Gulf and more recently to Portugal, Canada, the U.S.A. and France.

The demand has been mainly for rams for crossing with local breeds and in some countries small purebred flocks have been established for the breeding of rams. Typical of the experience of these countries of the Wiltshire is the opinion expressed in 1973 by the Rupunuri Development Company in South America that "the Wiltshire Horn is by far the best European breed for their part of the world".

History
Supreme Champion at the Royal Agricultural Society of England, at Nottingham in 1955. Ewe Lamb, bred and exhibited by O. Tudor Thomas of Penyrorsedd, Cemaes Bay, Anglesey.

In 1951 an entire flock, selected by the late Mr. J. Brodie, an original member of the Society, was sent to Australia. Import regulations now make it extremely difficult to export there, which is a pity as demand for the breed far exceeds supply. The Wiltshire is now firmly established in Australia, where much experimentation is done to cross the breed with local varieties in order to establish a sheep without wool in an attempt to eliminate the trouble caused by maggot fly. This may sound a bold move but the sense of a wool-less sheep has long been recognised by many in the industry.

Domestically, the increase in popularity led to the breed doing well at National shows. The first major success was in 1954 with a Wiltshire Horn entry coming 3rd out of all sheep breed entries. Since then there have been many more successes, including several Champions at the Royal Show and countless prizes at regional events.

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Recent History

Two Lambs
Two ram lambs from Veronica Brigg's gorse flock which in 1991 were sent to join a small flock in Trinidad for crossing with native ewes. The only British sheep with hair instead of wool, the Wiltshires have proved their ability to thrive in the high humidity and temperature of the West Indies and elsewhere.

In the '60s and '70s there was a decline in the popularity of the Wiltshire Horn as the value of pelts of other breeds soared. The remaining established and dedicated breeders of the Wiltshire kept the breed alive until the advent of artificial clothing materials in the late '70s to the present meant that the costs associated with wool production rendered meat production uncompetitive, leading to an upsurge in popularity of the wool less breeds.

To promote the breed in the '80s classes were reintroduced at several shows where Wiltshires had been absent for some years and the Society has since embarked on a number of farmer and public awareness initiatives which have resulted in the restored popularity of the breed. The Wiltshire Horn is now at the forefront of the industry both at home and abroad.

The resurgence of the breed is well reflected in the following extract from the "New Zealand Farmer": -

"Wiltshire sheep are big, prolific and meaty, producing fast growth, heavy carcasses with low levels of fat - exactly what the modern prime lamb trade requires... prime lamb trade should be a fast turnover business which should be done with the minimum amount of labour and because of the lack of wool, shepherding costs are greatly reduced."
 

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