Livestock Breeds

An introduction to British breeds of livestock.

 Quick Index 
Buying Direct
Area index

The British population doubled between 1700 and 1800 reaching 10¾ million. The 2001 census fixed the figure at just under 60 million. More people need more food and primitive farm animals could not produce enough. Although Henry VIII had made laws concerning the breeding of horses farm livestock in general was bred without any plan. Before about 1730 the better quality animals were usually sent to market and the poorer beasts were kept for breeding; a practice that favoured a deterioration in quality rather than the reverse. The rapidly rising population had to be fed and agricultural procedures changed to meet this need.

The foundations of change were laid by Jethro Tull and 'Turnip' Townsend - remarkable contemporaries (both born in 1674) who made possible the growing and storage of enough fodder to keep substantial herds alive through the winter. The enclosure acts and later the adoption of watermeadows also contributed to the possibility of establishing permanent herds.

At the start of the 18th century there were many breeds of farm animals, a few of the rare breeds we know today already existed but many of them were not recognised as such. Each locality had the animals that best survived in the area under the harsh regime that had prevailed, in places where the regime is unaltered these remain the best breeds and continue unchanged. Most of these are Island animals - the sheep of Shetland, the Hebrides and the Isle of Man are ancient hardy breeds, Ronaldsay sheep are adapted for a diet of seaweed, good quality grass is poison to them. The white cattle of Chillingham are an ancient breed although there is a history of selective culling which has altered and improved the breed. The Bagot goat is a strange example, the breed has been unchanged since the 14th century but probably derived from ancient Swiss stock.

Almost all the old unimproved breeds have died out. Few of them are lamented as most of their useful qualities have been preserved in more modern breeds. Many of their descendants have become rare themselves and these recognised 'rare breeds' may deserve preservation. The concentration of selected qualities which might not be of commercial use at this moment does represent a store from which new breeds may be bred if and when new commercial requirements arise.

Longhorn cattle are preserved mainly for cross breeding beef animals. The calves from a Longhorn sire tend to be born without difficulty and they lay down most of their fat in such a way that it can be cut away from the carcase leaving leaner beef that the modern housewife prefers. Dairy Shorthorns, once widespread in Britain and still extremely common worldwide have been supplanted by Fresians for sheer quantity of milk production but Shorthorns are also used for cross breeding beef and some are still milked as dual purpose animals. Specialist, high quality milk is likely to come from Channel Island breeds or South Devons or Ayrshires. The other cattle of Devon, just called Devons, are today a beef breed although they were developed as draught oxen. Together with Hereford, Aberdeen Angus and Galloway these represent the high quality, well flavoured end of the beef trade. Continental breeds are often used to produce larger beef carcases and some lower grade meat is derived from dairy breeds.

At one time there were only two types of pig. Small black ones that foraged much as wild boar used to do before them and slightly larger white pigs that were fattened on household and farmyard waste. From these were bred a number of breeds but Chinese imports were cross bred into them to produce many new strains. Most of these have been lost or are very rare. Large Whites and Middle Whites represent the greatest proportion of the pigs alive today. There are a smattering of rare breeds kept for speciality butchery - Tamworths are famous for their bacon as are Gloucester Old Spots. Landrace and Saddlebacks are hardy breeds that are often crossed with Large Whites for outdoor rearing. Large Blacks are also used for crossing and themselves are a useful dual purpose breed, sold young they yield first class pork whilst a little older they are suitable for bacon.

A greater proportion of the older breeds of sheep survive. Some, such as the russet coloured Portland are kept out of sentiment others, like the Dorset are selected for their long lambing period or the quality of their meat. It is not long since Southdown mutton was considered the only mutton worthy of a gentleman's plate. In contrast Shropshire and other border sheep were selected for the quality of their wool. Many breeds were crossed with Spanish Merinos in order to improve their wool but pure-bred Merinos do not do well in Britain. Texels and other imported breeds are becoming common, sometimes crossed with native breeds but in the hills the older British breeds are still holding their own.