Breed History

J. B. Smalley with a pair of sheep for the 1927 Great Yorkshire Show

When writing history, the biggest challenge is what to include and what to leave out. There are plenty of historical accounts of the Wensleydale breed, some of which have informed this brief history. However, much of what is presented here has been taken from flock book records over the past 120 years or so. In such a short summary, it takes an overview rather than focus too much on detail. The aim was to highlight the major trends while signifying the role of prominent figures over time; these are the people who devoted themselves to the breed and the Association, some of whom are only known today as names on trophies. Hopefully, by putting them into place in the history of the breed and Association, it will connect current members with their forebears in a meaningful way. They say that history repeats itself and looking back shows this to be very true – how the same issues and concerns, as well as efforts and dedication, experienced by members today were experienced in the past

Historical accounts of the Wensleydale breed generally start with one sheep, known as Bluecap, bred in 1839 by a renowned Dishley Leicester sheep breeder by the name of Sonley from Kirby Moorside, North Yorkshire. Bluecap was undoubtedly noteworthy for having the large frame, high quality, long lustrous wool and blue skin that came to characterise the Wensleydale breed, and as such his breeding became an iconic moment in the history of the breed. However, it is important to remember that the development of the breed took place over a much longer period of time – from around the middle of the 18th Century with various crossbreeding programmes producing bigger carcasses to feed the new urban masses generated by the Industrial Revolution. Our historical journey really starts much later though, in the late 1870s when the breed was actually named and shown as a breed in its own right, and the first attempt to form a breeders’ association was made 

Setting up an association was dogged by disagreement among members about foundation flocks and the falling out led to the establishment of two associations: the long-winded Incorporated Wensleydale Blue-faced Sheep Breeders’ Association and Flock Book Society, and the Wensleydale Long-wool Sheep Breeders’ Association and Flock Book Society. Amalgamation after the dark years of the First World War, 1914-18, settled differences and established the Wensleydale Longwool Sheep Breeders’ Association we know today

T. B. Earle (left) and Len Fawell at the 1956 Royal Show in Newcastle
Len Fawell in 1957 – he first presented the Fawell Silver Coffee Pot in 1955 for the best ram lamb, and the Fawell Perpetual Challenge Cup was presented in 1969 for the best male or femal of any age

The end of the 19th Century through to the Second World War was a period mostly characterised by optimism with increasing interest in the breed, both at home and abroad – exports went as far afield as Australia, North and South America and Poland – and increasing demand and prices at the sales. There were exceptions with Foot and Mouth outbreaks in 1912, 1924 and again in 1930/31, which had impact on movements and hence shows and sales. In 1913, Scotland’s ban on the movement of sheep from England to north of the border meant a dearth of Scottish customers for Wensleydale rams at the Hellifield Show and Sale in October. In addition, war and economic depression across the globe led to a great slump in sheep prices at sales. The 1915 flock book preface, reflecting back on 1914, noted the later stages of the show season being ‘overshadowed and disorganized by the terrible war cloud that has gathered and still hangs heavily over our country’. Similarly, the 1941 flock book recorded the cancellation of shows and exhibitions owing to war conditions as the Second World War took hold, although the Annual Autumn Ram Show and Sale at Hellifield did go ahead with 72 entries. Throughout this period interest in Wensleydales held up owing to the popularity of the breed

Despite the difficult times, enthusiasm for the breed remained resolute even though membership in the early years of around 125 members fell to around 75 at the outbreak of the Second World War. Among those who remained loyal to the breed, the most notable was William Rhodes JP who served variously as President, Chairman, and Treasurer over a couple of decades and is now known for presenting the original William Rhodes Perpetual Trophy which is currently awarded to the most successful exhibitor of the year. His renowned Lundholme Flock was dispersed in 1912 with thirty-six breeding ewes fetching an average of £9 7s 6d and the highest price in the sale of just over £13. Other breeders of note in this period were John Percival, J. B. Smalley and C. Nettleton (now known respectively for the John Percival Trophy for the best female, the John Percival Perpetual Challenge Cup for the best shearling ram bred by the exhibitor, the Smalley Perpetual Challenge Cup for the best ram of any age, and the Nettleton Perpetual Silver Salver for the best fleshed ram lamb, all presented at the Annual Show and Sale). Other members important for their contribution to the breed were T. Earle (the Earle Trophy presented for the most outstanding achievement in fleece classes during the year), J. Willis, and J. W. Greensit. All of these among many more too numerous to mention had long and dedicated service in the show ring and on the Association Council

Freda Elliott – remembered for the F. Elliott Perpetual Silver Challenge Trophy presented by J. A. Elliott and family for the best Wensleydale male at the Great Yorkshire Show
W. B. (Barton) Parkinson with a Castle Mill ram – commemorated by the William Barton Parkinson Great Yorkshire Show Memorial Trophy, presented by his sister Mary for the winner of the yearling ewe in full wool class at the Great Yorkshire Show

The impact of the war years on society did not dent the enthusiasm for the breed. While flock books became thinner, this was not reflected in the number of sheep being produced which in 1947 was estimated to be the greatest ever. It was also a period of sadness with two significant losses – G. Goland Robinson, who had been Secretary from 1919 to 1922 and again in 1946, died in 1947, and John Percival who died in 1949. There were also highlights such as the Diamond Jubilee in 1950 to commemorate the compilation of the first flock book in September 1890 for which J. Dargue generously hosted a party for members and friends

The 1950s saw more disruption from Foot and Mouth disease leading to restricted movements and cancellation of shows, but in 1952 the Annual Show and Sale at Hellifield did go ahead with a record price of 210 guineas achieved by William Parkinson of the Castle Mill flock for his shearling ram. This was a period of growth in which a number of flocks, destined to have considerable influence through the rest of the 20th Century and beyond, came to the fore, notably Carperby (J. A. Willis and Son), and Islebeck (Sidney Weighell). T. Burton, now commemorated by the Burton Silver Teapot first presented in 1961 for the best shearling or aged ram at the Annual Show and Sale, was well known for using the Wensleydale as a crossing sire. It was also the period of the great family dynasties that provided continuity over several generations: Boltby (F. Ashby handed on to his son and daughter-in-law Percy and Madge), Castle Mill (established by William Parkinson and taken over by sons Joe and Barton), Kirby Hill (I. L. Fawell whose grandson Ernie Sherwin now has the renowned Nosterfield flock), Fellbeck (Peter and Jean Robinson whose daughter Mary formed the Brimham flock), and particularly the Providence flock established by Fred and Sarah Elliott, taken over by daughter Freda and her brother John and continued today by John and Judy Elliott’s son Mark

If the two World Wars did little to hinder the growth in popularity of the breed, the 1960s saw a downturn in its fortunes that nearly led to demise of the Association and came to be seen as its darkest days. A diminishing membership was recorded in the 1963 flock book reaching a nadir in 1977 with 25 flocks remaining and only 12 rams registered. With the breed close to extinction, it is testament to the efforts and dedication of those breeders who gave the breed a future. Just before his death in 1980, Association Secretary W. (Billy) Dickinson handed over the reins to Agnes Winter who took on the unenviable task of managing the secretarial and treasurer duties through these difficult times. The mid-1980s saw somewhat of a renaissance for the breed and the Association with the membership expanding from 91 in 1984 to 179 by 1994 and has remained steady at around 200 ever since. However, the same perennial concerns of the early breeders persisted with the 1994 Flock Book preface noting the two extremes of very high-quality sheep being presented alongside very poor which should not have been registered. Show successes of Roger Field’s Reserve Supreme Championship hogg-in-wool at the 1995 Royal Show and Mark Elliott’s Providence Second Reserve Supreme hogg-in-wool at the 1998 Royal Show, both standing next to the best downland breeds in the world, epitomised the quality of sheep that all breeders should aim for

Agnes Winter (second right) with Association member Mike Fordyce (third right) watching Agnes’ mother, Kate Mason, judging at the Annual Show & Sale at Skipton circa 1990. Presented the Cornist Trophy for the most points accumulated in non-Wensleydale classes
Percy Ashby (left), John Elliott (centre) and Len Fawell (right) in the shearling ram class at the 1970 Great Yorkshire Show

An unexpected benefit for Wensleydales came from the BSE crisis in cattle in the middle of the 1990s. With the concern in the sheep industry about Scrapie in sheep, the Association began its own programme of screening for the disease and noted the Wensleydale’s high genetic resistance. Another highlight was that increased numbers of breeding ewes meant that the breed could be elevated from Category 3 – Vulnerable to Category 4 – At Risk on the Rare Breed Survival Trusts Watch List. Review of the Association’s affairs under the chairmanship of Peter Titley and secretarial input from Lt. Col. Frank Pedley led to the updating of the Articles of Association and consolidation of breeding and registration rules, especially relating to black Wensleydales. However, show opportunities for breeders of black sheep remained limited until the chairmanship of Graham Steventon from 2012 to 2016 when all restrictions were lifted, and black sheep could be shown alongside white sheep at every show

The first two decades of the Millenium started with yet another Foot and Mouth outbreak, this time impacting significantly on Wensleydales with the loss of six per cent of the breed between 2001 and 2002, and movement restrictions translated into movement regulations that have remained in force ever since. It was also a period that saw the deaths of several prominent members and former members: Barton Parkinson (1998), Freda Elliott (2005), Kate Mason (2006), Ruth Pedley (2007) – commemorated by the Ruth Pedley Memorial Trophy presented by Frank Pedley for the most notable interbreed success in the year, Brian Holgate (2009), John Elliot (2013), Madge Ashby (2016), Jean Robinson (2023) and Peter Titley (2023) – commemorated by the Outlane Perpetual challenge Cup presented in 1999 for the best ewe lamb at Melton Show and Sale. Global warming has brought new disease threats in the form of Schmallenberg and Bluetongue, and Brexit and Covid have been pivotal moments in 21st Century history with significant social consequences that have affected the sheep industry in different ways

Over more than one hundred and fifty years, Wensleydale enthusiasts have seen lots of changes, but as noted at the beginning, history has frequently repeated itself. Above all else, as an end note we turn to a favourite anecdote of Frank Pedley to aptly sum up what everyone involved with Wensleydales will understand: ‘Disclaimer: Wensleydales are addictive’

Len Fawell (left), Roger Field (second from left), Brian Holgate (centre) and Peter Robinson (second from right) at Skipton circa late 1970s/early 1980s
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