The Wensleydale is a very large longwool sheep, described by the British Meat and Livestock Commission as “probably the heaviest of all our indigenous breeds”. It is a visually striking sheep with considerable presence. It has bold and alert carriage which is accentuated by its broad, level back on wide quarters and strong thighs. It has a distinctive deep blue head and ears, which should be clean except for a well developed forelock of wool, usually referred to as the “topping”. Both sexes are polled.
About The Breed
The Wensleydale Longwool breed of sheep originated in North Yorkshire early in the 19th Century from a cross between a long since extinct local longwool breed from the region of the River Tees and an outstanding Dishley Leicester ram named ‘Bluecap’. The breed was developed to produce hardy rams for crossing onto hill ewes, together with high quality and valuable lustre fleeces.
The breed is probably unique in that its Association is able to not only identify a foundation sire, but also trace that ram’s parentage, year and place of birth and breeder. ‘Bluecap’ was born in 1839 in the hamlet of East Appleton, five miles NNW of Bedale in North Yorkshire. His qualities, which determined the breed type without any further infusion of Leicester blood, were his dark skin, superb quality of wool and size – 203 kgs (448 lbs) as a two shear. The breed type was not named until 1876, when a name was required for classes at the Yorkshire Show.
Two separate breed societies, born out of rivalry and conflicting interests, were formed in 1890. These were the Wensleydale Longwool Association and the Wensleydale Blue-faced Sheep Breeders’ Association – each producing its own flock book, despite the fact that each represented the same breed with the same characteristics. Eventually the recognition that this division was not in the interests of the breed led to the two societies amalgamating in 1920 to form the current Wensleydale Longwool Sheep Breeders Association.
The Wensleydale is a large sheep with mature rams weighing up to 140kg and ewes around 100kg, although individual sheep may be heavier. The skin on head and ears should be blue, often extending on to the body – back and flanks – particularly where exposed to sunlight.
The head should be broad at the muzzle and the back of head flat and wide between the ears, especially in rams. In profile the face should show good depth of jaw. Ears should be of good size, neatly set on and well carried. The forelock should be characteristically left intact at shearing. The head and face should be free of hair. The neck should be strong, rising gracefully from the shoulders and carrying the head at a good height. Teeth should be well placed at the edge of, or fractionally behind, the dental pad.
The shoulders should be well laid back into the crop, which should be wide and full. The chest should come well down wide and forward into the brisket. Ribs should be well sprung. Back should be long and straight, loins broad and hindquarters long and square, all well covered with firm flesh. Rams should have two even sized and firm testicles.
Thighs should be well down into the hocks, large and broad behind. Legs should have plenty of bone, free of coarse or pigmented hair, straight set on at each corner and well apart. Hind legs should have a covering of wool from hock to hoof. Feet should be moderately large and well shaped.
Fleece should be bright and lustrous, and of good length in an unclipped sheep. Staple should be of medium breadth and equal all round the body, each staple curled or purled throughout its length. The belly, and scrotum in rams, should be well covered in wool and free of hair.
For any one interested in buying Wensleydale sheep, or newcomers to the breed who may be especially keen on showing their stock, the following diagram summarises the breed characteristics to aim for along with some common faults (click on the picture to see the larger image):
The Wensleydale breed has been developed to provide rams for crossing onto hill ewes, mainly Swaledale, Blackface, Rough Fell, Cheviot and Dalesbred and latterly Beulah, to produce a prolific, milky and hardy breeding ewe (the original Masham) and also a wether which can produce under natural conditions on marginal ground a quality carcass at higher weight with no excess fat. The Wensleydale ram gives that extra size and quality to its cross bred progeny, enabling any recognised terminal sire to fulfil its potential.
A Wensleydale ewe will produce two lambs, and often three, with minimal lambing problems. Twin lambs average 6 kgs each at birth with a growth rate that enables ram lambs to reach 73 kgs at 21 weeks and be used with confidence on hill breed ewes in the Autumn.
Though developed as a Crossing Sire the Wensleydale is equally
well known for the exceptionally high quality of its lustrous Wool, making it an outstanding dual purpose sheep. Wensleydale wool is the finest and most valuable lustre longwool in the world, having commanded the highest price in the British Wool Marketing Board’s Wool Schedule over recent years (2011 value £3.80/kg). Fleeces are of 20 – 30 cms staple length and 32 – 34 micron thickness, with yearling fleeces weighing from 6 to 9 kgs.
Fleeces are entirely kemp free as a result of the unique characteristics of the wool-producing follicles. This special quality is genetically transmitted to cross-bred lambs, characterising the Wensleydale ram as perhaps the leading wool improver sire in the world. Wensleydale wool is used for its special effects and handle in hand knitting yarn, knitwear and cloth and sometimes in upholstery fabrics. Because of its similarity, it is regularly used to blend with mohair. The characteristics of Wensleydale wool also make it ideal for dyeing, and superb effects can be created without loss of lustre.
Scrapie resistance: The Wensleydale has one of the highest genetic resistance to scrapie of all recognised breeds in the United Kingdom, with PrP tests revealing a 93% codon 171 R/R genotype in the breed. Buyers of Wensleydales for pure or cross breeding therefore have a very high probability of producing progeny of high scrapie resistance.
A separate register is maintained in the flock book for coloured Wensleydales which occur naturally as a result of a double recessive black gene (this is not exclusive to the Wensleydale). Since the coloured register was commenced in 1994 the number of black ewe lambs registered with the Association has been volatile – in 1999 there were 88 registrations but these have declined in recent years.
Some white animals carry one recessive black gene and mating two such sheep can produce coloured lambs from an apparently all white flock. These lambs are registered in the coloured register and the dam and sire must also be transferred out of the white flock. When the demand for wool was at its peak it was common for black lambs to be culled to prevent the valuable clip becoming ‘polluted’ with coloured fibres and to protect the reputation of breeders. However, these lambs born out of white flocks have now become very important as they widen the gene pool for coloured breeders – in 1999 breeding rams were registered from 13 flocks but by 2009 this had declined to 6 flocks.
Although referred to as Black Wensleydales – the colour will vary from silver to jet black. Lambs are generally born black or charcoal grey. The darker fleeces have a tendency to ‘grey’ with age as a result of the appearance of white fibres and the tips of the staples weather to a golden brown or beige. This variation in colour within each staple is particularly valuable to hand spinners and textile artists making the wool highly sought after and of premium value.