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Sheep Breeds Endemic to the United Kingdom - The Dartmoor

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

British Sheep Breeds

The Dartmoor

Like the Dartmoor pony, the Dartmoor sheep is attractive in appearance.

The Dartmoor sheep is also known as the Greyface Dartmoor or 'Improved Dartmoor'. There is also a type known as the Whiteface Dartmoor. The Dartmoor in its various guises is one of Great Britain's indigenous breeds.

The Greyface Dartmoor is classed as a Lustre Longwool sheep. The fleece is white, long and curly. Its main use is in tweeds, serge, cloth, carpets and blanket-making, Fleeces of 7 to 9 kg can be expected and mature rams may cut up to 15kg. The length of the lustrous staple is 25 to 30cms. It is a medium sized animal and is noted for its delicious meat as well as for its valuable fleece.

Dartmoor Sheep 2

The Dartmoor is extremely hardy. It thrives on the hills and mountains, foraging and raising lambs in harsh, exposed, wet and windy conditions.

It is a descendent of the Heath Sheep (also known as Cornish Sheep) of the 17th century. These in turn can be traced back to the Bronze Age Soay sheep. The Dartmoor is indigenous to the West Country in general and Devon in particular.

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The ewes have wonderful maternal instincts and are heavy milkers. They are also docile which is good if you need to handle a small flock. Lambing percentages of 140% are not unusual and the lambs grow quickly. Sometimes there is excess wool around the udder which may need to be trimmed away to allow the lamb(s) to suckle easily. Traditionally the lambs are shorn before the first of July.

This breed is polled and weighs around 60kgs. They have a deep body but short legs. The fleece is dense even on the head and hind legs. The face and legs are white but may be spotted or mottled with black or grey hair. The legs may also have motley markings.

Dartmoor Sheep

The mouth is square, the eyes bright and full and the nostrils open. The medium-sized head is flat between the ears which are thick, of medium length and well covered. The hair on the ears is smooth on the outside and tan coloured inside. Curly wool covers the head.

A strong, arched neck attaches well to the shoulders which are quite wide. The breast is deep and broad and the ribs well sprung. The back is straight and level and the loin wide and thick. The broad tail is set well up. The short legs are straight and of good substance. The feet are large and sound. Long, curly, wide-stapled wool should be evenly distributed over the whole body. The skin is soft and pink.

Dartmoor ewes may be crossed with terminal sires to produce quick-growing lambs which can be slaughtered at a dead weight of 20 to 22 kg in just 16 weeks. For its bodyweight, the Greyface Dartmoor eats less than any other breed and produces more wool. It is the only medium lustre wool sheep in the United Kingdom.

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During the 19th century the Greyface Dartmoor was crossed with Nottinghamshire and Leicester longwools. The resulting sheep were known as the 'Improved Dartmoor'. In 1909, the Greyface Dartmoor Breeders Association was formed and a flock book is now published annually. For identification purposes, all registered sheep now wear eartags.

The Whiteface Dartmoor also has a good reputation as a moorland sheep. It copes with cold, wet winters very well, turning out an average wool clip of between 5 and 7kg (from ewes). Under good conditions, these weights can be much heavier. The wool is white with a fairly strong curl, a good staple and moderately greasy.

The ewes have a good supply of milk and are good mothers. Lambing percentages average about 150%. This breed is also used to improve other longwool breeds and has more recently been used to produce commercial ewes for prime lamb production. Using crossbreds can increase carcass weights and wool yields without losing vigour or hardiness.

In ancient times, the Whiteface Dartmoor was probably much more dispersed. As the land became more enclosed for agriculture, the sheep were driven back to Dartmoor. They are now found in the heart of the National Park. The head of the Whiteface Dartmoor is white and free of wool. The nose is black. Rams may be horned. The body shape is like that of the Greyface Dartmoor. These sheep manage well on natural grazing and are aggressive foragers.

The Greyface Dartmoor is listed in the 'minority' group by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust and the Whiteface Dartmoor as 'at risk'.

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