When he visited Britain in 1748, the Swedish naturalist Kalm was impressed with the hardiness of British sheep. In contrast to the Continent they spent most of their time outside. The native sheep of Herefordshire and adjoining counties were amongst the toughest. Later known as the Ryeland, because of the association with the Rye (corn) plant which grew well on the sandy soils of their region, they were said to produce the best wool in Britain from the worst feed. In 1779 it was worth 30 pence per pound compared with 18 pence for the next best. At that time there were 500,000 of these sheep in Hereford alone.
Around 1800 the Ryeland was found to be the most successful of all British breeds to cross with the Merinos which George III had introduced. From then on, however, the inevitable spread of Leicester and Southdown genes, combined with improved pastures, changed the Ryeland to become a good meat sheep. Actually some farmers, including George 111, attempted to preserve the fine wool characteristics of the breed, (he kept a flock on bracken and heath lands adjacent to Windsor Park) but without success.
By the 1850's it had completely lost its place as a wool producer. Its four pound clip was worth only 13 pence, whereas the Lincoln's 10 or 12 pound fleece brought an equal price per pound. At the turn of the century other Downs breeds claimed favour, but by 1909 when the first Flock Book was published there was a resurgence of interest.
Arrival in Australia
It is doubtful if there were any Ryelands in Australia prior to 1919 when the New South Wales Department of Agriculture imported 10 ewes and a ram from the English flocks of Herbert Halford and Bray. In the same year J. A. Helling, South Australia, sourced 2 ewes and a ram from England. Between 1922 and 1935 hundreds of Ryelands were imported from New Zealand.
In the 1930's the "Woodburn" stud of the Hon. T. H. Payne of Kilmore, Victoria, which was founded on both English and New Zealand blood, emerged as the leading supplier of rams to other Australian studs. The "Burnwood" stud of J. Mclntosh succeeded to that role by 1950. The number of flocks peaked at over 200 in the 1960's.
Description of the Ryeland Sheep
Head: Medium length and size, showing character, strength and constitution, No trace of horns.
Face: Dull white in colour (free from grey or rust), dark skin around nose, nostrils not contracted, white hair on dark skin around eyes. Eyes bright and clear of wool.
Ears: Medium size and texture, carried slightly above eye level, dark colour, with white fringe, or covered with short wool or white hair, may have black spots.
Neck: Strong of medium length and set on so as to give a bridled appearance.
Shoulders: Smoothly and well set
Chest: Broad and fairly deep
Back: Straight and level with a good loin. Tail set on fairly level with back
Ribs: Well sprung, body well down forming a good underline
Leg of Mutton: Full, well let down, good length of hindquarter from hip bone to dock
Legs: Dull white in colour (free from grey or rust), black spot below knees or hocks undesireable, legs falling straight from body, well woolled down, hocks well set.
Feet: Dark, compact, well set on.
Skin: Healthy pink colour except where otherwise stated
Flesh: Even and firm handling
Carriage: Smart appearance when walking or standing, head well carried
Fleece: 58-60s in quality, dense, firm handling medium, staple with character, close level appearance, belly and purse covered. Free from kemp, grey or rusty fibres.
Prime lamb sire
Fine, dense 23-26 micron and 100mm long.
Number of registered flocks
Registered ewes joined in 2023
For further information on Ryeland sheep
Marilyn and Des Stevens 03 55782311
Heritage Sheep Australia
11 Mona Place
South Yarra, Victoria 3141
Phone: 03 9820 4172