Britain’s oldest pedigree sheep breed no longer under threat

A group of Shropshires pictured on the Sansaw_Estate, near Hadnell, Shropshire

A group of Shropshires pictured on the Sansaw_Estate, near Hadnell, Shropshire

SHROPSHIRE sheep are no longer considered rare in the UK and the breed has been officially removed from the Rare Breed Survival Trust’s Watchlist, it was announced this week at a briefing in London attended by HRH The Prince of Wales and many other supporters of native farm animals.

The renewed popularity of the Shropshire, this country’s oldest pedigree breed, was a highlight of the RBST’s 40th Anniversary celebrations at the prestigious headquarters of The Royal Society. The event marked the Trust’s success in rescuing native breeds of farm livestock from extinction: Many of the nation’s old breeds were lost forever in the first half of the 20th Century, but since the RBST was formed in 1973, all existing British farm animals have been preserved.

Shropshire Sheep are, however, one of only a very few endangered breeds that have managed to regain mainstream livestock status. The breeding population of registered Shropshire ewes in the UK has increased from fewer than 500 in the early ‘70s to over 3,000 in 2012, with further increases expected when the latest flock returns are fully processed.

Speaking at the event, HRH The Prince of Wales praised the dedication of members of the RBST and rare breed enthusiasts in Britain who have kept our important livestock heritage alive. He emphasised that native breeds are not just an attractive reminder of a bygone era, but an important genetic resource that could hold the key to more sustainable agricultural production.

“The Shropshire has often been described as a breed that didn’t deserve to become rare,” commented Liz Bowles, the President of the Shropshire Sheep Breeders’ Association. “Shropshires are hardy, prolific and produce excellent butchers’ lambs from low inputs – traits that are important to today’s commercial sheep producer. Over the past two decades, our breed society has worked hard to promote the Shropshire and ensure that it continues to perform well as a terminal sire, producing the type of lamb carcase required by retailers.”

Liz singled out three additional factors that have helped to bring about a reversal in the fortunes of Shropshire sheep: Firstly, the unique ability of the breed to graze safely in conifer plantations without damaging the trees has led to the breed becoming very popular with Christmas tree growers, both in this country and across Europe. Fruit growers are also beginning to use Shropshires in their orchards, although this is an emerging market for the sheep in the UK. With increasing fuel prices affecting the cost of mowing, and greater restrictions on the use of agrochemicals, tree growers are becoming ever more interested in alternative, environmentally friendly methods for weed and herbage control in their plantations.

Secondly, the energy and commitment of the Breed Society has enabled better links to be formed with Shropshire sheep breeders across the globe, resulting in increased interest in UK-bred animals. High value exports of breeding stock and Shropshire ram semen have been made recently to Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland and the USA.

Thirdly, the increased interest in all types of rare and native livestock breeds in the UK. Based on enquiries received by the SSBA it would appear that a considerable number of new entrants who have come into farming over the past decade are particularly interested in the old breeds, as well as other established farmers looking for livestock breeds that do well in lower input, sustainable farming systems.

“The RBST has played a significant role in assisting the Shropshire breed to move forward, from its very first steps back from the brink in the 1970s to a current research project which is underway to establish the breed’s DNA profile as a means of protecting its role within agroforestry,” added Liz. “The RBST is supporting this project with funding and has also helped to direct the Society to the most expert assistance in this field from the Roslin Institute. The SSBA is very grateful for all the support the Trust has provided over the years, which has undoubtedly contributed to the Shropshire’s rehabilitation as a mainstream traditional breed.”


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