British Sheep Breeds

The Black Welsh Mountain Sheep

The Black Welsh Mountain Sheep is classed as a primitive breed and is endemic to the British Isles. During the Middle Ages, Benedictine monks bred black-woolled Welsh Mountain Sheep. These were very popular as meat from these sheep was famed for its richness and taste. The wool was known as 'cochddu' (or cuchddu) meaning reddish-brown.

Merchants paid highly for these fleeces and Welsh woollen mills were some of the top users. Then, from the mid 19th century, selective breeding took place to try to set the black colour. The end result was the Black Welsh Mountain Sheep.

Black Welsh Mountain SheepCredit:,

This breed is small. The face is free of wool. The legs below the knees and hocks are also free of wool. It is the only totally black-woolled sheep in the United Kingdom. Its fleeces are sought after by hand spinners and weavers. The short, fine wool is soft and dense. Although the fleece is a pure black, the tips may bleach to a reddish brown. The fleece is firm to handle and can be used undyed. It is used for speciality yarns and cloth which is durable, warm yet light. The yarn blends well with other wools and is often combined with white wool to produce striking checks and patterns. When tanned, the pelts have a rich, deep pile and are popular as floor rugs and seat covers.

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As well as having such outstanding fleece qualities, the sheep produce outstanding mild mutton. It is regarded as a true dual purpose breed. The staple length is 8 to 109 centimetres and the average fleece weighs around 2.5 to 4 pounds. Such is the quality that the Wool Marketing Board has now allocated the breed its own grade.

Mutton from this breed has a close texture. The bone is light and there is a minimum amount of fat. It is rich in colour and flavoursome. Small cuts are popular with house-wives and are succulent and lean. Finished lambs have an average carcass weight of 30 to 38 pounds. When crossed with a terminal sire, the offspring make good quality prime lambs. Even the older mutton retains a wonderful flavour.

When compared to other breeds, the animals are quite short and may reach between 20 and 30 inches at the shoulder. The rams have impressive horns as befits an ancient hill sheep. Ewes are polled but all have long tails. Adult ewes weigh around 100 pounds and rams are 30 to 40 pounds heavier. Lambing percentages can reach 200% with most flocks under good conditions recording 175%. The feet and legs are very sound as befits a hill sheep and they have some resistance to fly strike and hoof infections.

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It lives on exposed hillsides in their native areas. Only the fittest survive under these conditions and the breed is hardy and prolific. The ewes make great mothers and have excellent feed efficiency. The meat and wool are of a high quality. The breed has no need for supplementary feeding. Lambs are vigorous at birth and suckling within a very short time. Being easy keepers with a natural resistance to disease makes them ideal for hobby farmers and the commercial producer. The ewes have good maternal skills and rarely have lambing problems. They are great foragers but adapt well to improved lowland areas. Under good conditions each generation tends to be bigger framed and heavier fleeced than the one before it.

The first of the breed were imported into the United States in 1972. Most North American representatives trace back to one of two lines. Frozen semen was made available in the late 1990s bringing much needed genetic diversity to the breed. In 2004, the first North American stud book was published. The interests of this beautiful breed are protected by the American Black Welsh Mountain Sheep Association which is very active in promoting the breed.

It is spread through the British Isles and, as well as the USA, it is also found in Ireland and Canada.