British Sheep Breeds
The Border Cheviot breed of sheep is endemic to the Cheviot Hills on the border between England and Scotland. The climate here is inhospitable and bleak. The area is windswept and unrelentingly harsh. Creatures which make this region their home need to be tough with constitutions of iron and a strong will to live.
Cheviots are vigorous foragers and not only survive but thrive under these desolate conditions. They have high fertility rates and mature at an early age. Being so active, they put on muscle rather than fat. The ewes are excellent mothers and have very few lambing problems. As far back as 1372 there were large numbers of sheep living on the Cheviot Hills. At that time, they were small and hardy and probably kept for their wool.
During the late 18th century, sheep of the Ryeland and Lincoln breeds were introduced by James Robson of Roxburghshire. The progeny were bigger and produced a heavier fleece. James Sinclair took some Cheviots to the far north of Scotland around this time and these quickly became established as a sub-type. Cheviot Tweed of that era was renowned for its durability and usefulness.
The Cheviot of today is a dual purpose animal. It is polled and of medium size. It has better fleshing and a better quality fleece than its forebears. It is also heavier with rams weighing between 75 and 90kg. The ewes are slightly lighter, between 30 and 50kg. Hill breed sheep need to be agile and active and the Cheviot is both. There is a small dip behind the withers caused by a rather high shoulder and the rump slopes off somewhat. The traits of a mutton breed are evident in the deep chest and body and muscular hindquarter. The general conformation facilitates movement in hilly country and gives the Cheviot a stylish, aristocratic bearing.
The modern Cheviot has a white face and distinctive pricked ears. The muzzle is black and this is a protection against skin cancer. The feet are also black and hard so they withstand wet conditions well.
The legs and face are free of wool but are covered with fine, white hair. Occasionally there may be an odd black spot. The feet are black and hard. Even in the often wet conditions, the Cheviot has a good resistance to footrot and fungal problems. The black muzzle gives good protection against skin cancer but the skin is a healthy pink.
The forehead is wide and the eyes dark and round with black rims. Some Cheviots are affected by eye problems as there is no fleece protection. The muzzle is broad and the nostrils wide. The profile is somewhat convex, particularly in the rams.
The ears are well covered both inside and out with white hair. The ears are carried very erect giving an alert outlook. The Cheviot has a deep body and well filled hindquarters as befits a good mutton sheep. The body looks square although often the length exceeds the hight. The neck is free of wrinkles and strong. The back is straight and long, the chest wide and deep giving plenty of heart room. The loin is strong and well covered and the flanks full. The meaty, compact frame is supported on short legs set well apart and perpendicular to the corners of the body.
The fleece should not show any roughness or kemp but is close and fine. The wool extends from behind the ears to just above the hocks and knees. There should be good covering on the belly. The three-dimensional crimp of the wool gives it a chalky appearance. The helical crimp also gives high durability and resilience. The fleece is long-stapled and springy to the touch. It has a long history as a carpet wool. Fleece rot and fly strike is reduced because of the character of the wool. Staple length varies from 4 to 6 inches and fleece weight varies from 2.5 to 4.5kg depending on the age, sex and conditions under which the animal is kept. When blended with other yarns, there is always a greater resilience and durability in the composite fabric. It has a particularly useful function in carpet making. Ten percent of Cheviot wool added to a carpet increases the quality by 15%. Conversely the weight can be reduced by 15% to retain the original quality.
Cheviots can be flighty. Many native breeds have had to live on their wits and these primitive instincts remain in many breeds. They have good sight, hearing and agility. If handled regularly and calmly, the flightiness can be minimised. As there is no protection for the eyes, they can sometimes be prone to eye problems.
They can be difficult to contain and there will be less problems with wandering if they are held in fields with good fences from a young age. Tightly strained ringlock is recommended.
The first Cheviots came to Australia in 1834. The Van Diemen Company imported some to Tasmania. In 1938 the first stud was established in South Australia by H R Walsh & Son. Because of their ability to withstand the hot, dry summers and cold, wet winters, they became very popular but after the 1960s the numbers dropped. By 1997 there were only 1311 registered ewes.
In the 1830s, Thomas Laidler sent three Cheviots to each of his four children. Laidler was a shepherd in the Cheviot Hills and his children had migrated to America. These sheep became the foundation stock of the Cheviot in America.
The high fertility and mothering instincts are passed on to crossbred ewes. There is a high percentage of twins in breeding flocks. The rams make excellent terminal sires producing lambs ideally suited to the prime lamb market. The rams are aggressive breeders and cover a large number of ewes. A low birth weight means there are few birthing problems and the progeny have a high survival rate.
Cheviot wool is finer than that from British Longwool breeds and the finer-woolled crossbred progeny are highly sought after. The genetic stability of the Cheviot results in great hybrid vigour.
The lambs mature quickly. Rapid growth and quick maturation allows earlier sales and consequently higher returns.