The English Leicester's contribution in the 19th Century to the evolution of sheep industries world wide, but particularly in Britain and Australia, is inestimable.
As its name implies, it occupied the English county of Leicestershire for centuries and was valued for its long, strong, lustrous wool.
The period from 1750, known as the Industrial Revolution, was also a period of advance in agriculture and animal production and sheep, whose main role had been growing wool, were adapted for more efficient meat production.
Robert Bakewell (1725-1795) of Dishley Grange, Leicestershire, demonstrated that by selective breeding, Leicester sheep could be made fit for market in less than 2 years instead of the usual 4 years. He also pioneered close breeding strategies to fix desirable characteristics in his flock and ensure they were passed on to subsequent generations and his New Leicester became the most sought after sheep breed in Europe. They were infused to some extent in almost every breed of sheep in Britain, and were popular in North America where George Washington, the first President of the new United States, ran 900 on his Mount Vernon estate. Bakewell changed the Leicester, and subsequently most other breeds to produce more meat, but Britain continued to want more and more wool.
During the 19th Century the breed was referred to variously as the new Leicester, the Bakewell, and the Dishley, (after Bakewell's farm). By 1870 there was established in the North of England, an off shoot, the Border Leicester.
The Merinos of Australia could supply fine wool but as greater quantities were needed it was soon realised that crossing with long-woolled Leicesters would produce greater length and weight of wool, as well as more meat.
Arrival in Australia
It is likely that pure Leicesters were present in Australia earlier, but the importation of the Bryant Bros. to Tasmania in 1824 is one of the first recorded.
Numerous others followed, W. J. T. Clarke who took the first Leicesters, or Leicester cross sheep to Victoria in 1836 had arrived in Hobart in 1829 with 20 quality pure Leicesters. The Cressy Company had Leicesters amongst the collection of elite livestock, 3 breeds of horses, 2 of cattle, and Merino and Southdown sheep, which arrived in Hobart in 1826. No big corporate agricultural colonial venture ignored the Leicester. The Van Diemans Land Company landed them on its 250,000 acre grant in North West Tasmania by 1830, the Australian Agricultural Company had them in New South Wales in the same period, and they were included in the South Australian Company's first shipment in the John Piriein 1836.
Interest in Leicesters was maintained for 100 years because they crossed well with the Merino and delivered good economic results in terms of greater staple length and weight of wool, better constitution and more meat. Up to 1920 Europe was not particularly discriminating about wool quality so that half-bred and even pure Leicester wool sometimes brought more per pound than Merino wool.
The constant use of Leicester and other Longwool breeds on many Merino properties led to accidental and planned infusions, and historians agree that many of our leading Merino studs carry some Longwool genes.
The English Leicester has been largely superseded and now plays a very minor role in Australia's sheep industry.The Border Leicester , after about 1920, assumed the parents role, and became the premier breed in Australia for crossing with Merinos to produce prime lamb mothers.
Description of an English Leicester Sheep
Head: carried well, not too high; neat, cleanly chiselled wide between the ears slightly tapering to the nostrils. No sign of horns and carrying an attractive woolly forelock. Face in general form wedge shaped, free of wool and covered with short, white hairs. Lips and nostrils black. Black specks on face and ears not objectionable. Face tending to blue.
Eyes: Full sized and bright.
Ears: Medium sized and alert. Black spots not objectionable.
Neck: Medium length, strong and well set into a strong shoulder.
Shoulders: Upright and wide over the tops.
Chest: Breast should be deep and wide.
Back: Wide and level, well filled up behind the shoulders, giving a great girth, showing thickness throughout the heart and carrying firm even flesh.
Ribs: Well sprung.
Hind Quarters: Full sized and square, showing good legs of mutton. Tail well set on, almost level with back.<
Legs and Feet: Legs straight, well set on and wide apart. Short cannon bones, good upright pasterns, not sloping and devoid of rust or coloured wool on legs. Hoofs black.
Skin: Healthy pink colour.
Carriage: Free, active and well balanced.
Fleece: Dense, free, long, even and highly lustrous; lock medium width showing small, well-defined wave or crimp from skin to tip, belly well covered. Suggested wool count, 40s-46s (32-38 micron approx)
Constitution and General Appearance: Alert, robust attractive, showing style and character.
Commercial Use: Ideal crossing sire over fine wool sheep to produce prime lamb mothers, inheriting the desirable qualities of the English Leicester breed - large frame body, strong constitution, quiet temperament, milking ability and high lambing average,
The lambs grow out well to good marketable prime lambs,
32 – 38 micron and 180mm in length. Very lustrous and suitable for handcraft purposes.The long, strong, lustrous wool of the Leicester, and its cousin the Lincoln, has unique appeal to people interested in handcrafts.
Number of registered flocks in Australia
Number of registered ewes joined in 2008
For more information on English Leicesters
Heritage Sheep Australia
11 Mona Place
South Yarra, Victoria 3141
Phone: 03 9820 4172