British Sheep Breeds

The Oxford Down

The Oxford sheep (or Oxford Down) is one of Great Britain's indigenous breeds and is named after the English county in which it had its origins – Oxford. The original breed was a cross between old style Cotswold sheep and Hampshires. Southdowns had also contributed to the mix. The downs of England were lush grazing areas and a large sheep was needed which could take advantage of the fertile pastures.

Development of the Oxford began in 1829 but, until 1850 the quality was very mixed. The sheep were known as Down-Cotswold, indicative of the crossbred characteristics of the animal. In 1851 the Oxford was shown at the Royal Windsor Show and eight years later the name 'Oxford Down' was becoming more widely recognised. In 1862, the Royal Agricultural Society accepted the breed as distinct and unique.

Oxford Sheep(42761)Credit:

The Oxford is second in body weight only to the Lincoln. It is a very large breed, renowned for the quality of its mutton. Of the Down breeds, it produces the heaviest fleece. The face and legs of the Oxford are covered in light brown wool. It is a polled breed with large, reasonably prominent eyes. It has a proud carriage and holds the head high. The profile is straight and the ears of medium length. The poll and topknot are both well covered and the neck is strong. The shoulders and chest are broad. The animal has well-sprung ribs, a deep but long barrel and a level back. The hindquarters and loin are heavy. The legs are straight with heavy bone and dark hooves. The Oxford ranges in colour from dark brown to steel grey. The face, ears and legs match the colour of the fleece. The skin in pink.

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The Oxford does best with an abundant food supply. It does not forage particularly well and would rather consume large quantities of hay and pasture than search for feed on sparse pastures. A lambing rate of 150% is not unusual and the lambs are large and strong. With good feed, they reach a marketable weight at an early age and, if kept, will produce valuable, commercial fleeces of heavy, long-stapled wool.

If crossed with small ewes, rams pass on their superior size and weight. It may lack conformity of type compared to some meat breeds and the fleece quality and weight is not always consistent throughout a flock.

Mature rams weigh from 200 to 300 pounds (or more) while ewes are slightly lighter weighing from 150 to 200 pounds. A ewe fleece will weigh between 8 and 12 pounds and have a staple length of 3 to 5 inches. In appearance, the Oxford is similar to the Shropshire but is larger and the face is not so woolly. It is popular as a terminal sire for prime lambs.

There are a few Oxfords in New Zealand where they are found mainly on the east coast. The Rare Breeds Conservation Society of New Zealand has given the Oxford Down sheep the listing of 'rare'.

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The Oxford was exported to America in 1846 and in 1862 the American Oxford Down Record Association was founded in Xenia, Ohio. Prior to 1900, Oxfords in America were very large and rectangular. They were nearly black with little wool on the head and legs. They lacked muscle development and the fleeces were often coarse. Used on the native ewes, the progeny showed a great improvement in growth rate and carcass quality. The crossbred ewe had a good milk supply, high fertility, a passive temperament and good size and frame.

The Oxford became the third most numerous breed in America in the early 1900s. During the 1930s, selection was for smaller, short-legged, compact animals with better muscle development, a denser, shorter fleece and a lighter colour. The changes were not universally popular and the popularity of the breed decreased. Towards the middle of the 1900s, a decreasing gene pool resulted in the importation of unrelated animals from Scotland. These sheep went mainly to breeders in Ontario and Quebec. Popularity is again spreading for the Oxford Down sheep.