The Leicester Longwool is one of the “luster longwool” breeds, so designated for the sheen and brilliance of their wool. The sheep appear to shine just after shearing, when the clean wool next to their skin catches the sunlight and makes them glisten for a few days before the dust and dirt of their environment catches up to them and the glow is hidden for another year.
The Leicester Longwool breed is also known as the English Leicester (pronounced ‘lester’). The breed was developed in England in the mid-1700s by innovative breeder Robert Bakewell, the first to use modern selection techniques to improve livestock breeds. Bakewell transformed a coarse, large-boned, slow-growing animal into one that grew rapidly for market and produced a higher quality fleece.
News of Bakewell’s ideas reached the colonies before the American Revolution and so intrigued George Washington that he made reference to them in several letters. Washington was particularly interested in Bakewell’s sheep, writing that he made the “choice of good rams from the English Leicester breed” for his own flock. In 1837, the agriculturist Youatt wrote that, “within little more than half a century the New Leicester had spread themselves to every part of the United Kingdom and to Europe and America.”
The Leicester Longwool was highly prized in America, especially for its use in crossbreeding to improve “native” stock. During the 1800s, however, the breed lost favor to the Merino and other fine wool breeds. After 1900, the Leicester Longwool fell into decline and was likely extinct in the United States during the 1930s or 1940s. A very small population remained in Canada. In 1990, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, a historic site in Virginia, reestablished the breed in North America by importing sheep from Australia. Several conservation flocks have now been established, and the population of Leicester Longwool sheep in North America is increasing. This is important, given that the breed remains rare globally.
Leicester Longwools are medium to large sheep, weighing 180 to 250 pounds. The fleece is heavy, curly, soft handling, and lustrous with a spiral-tipped staple up to eight inches. Fleeces weigh from 11 to 15 pounds, occasionally up to 20 pounds. Leicesters are eager grazers, making good use of abundant pasture. When mixed flocks of Merinos and Leicesters are driven along roadsides in Australia, all of the Merinos have their heads up, watching what is going on, while the Leicesters are busy with their heads down, chomping down the succulent roadside grasses. Leicesters are docile and easy to handle, but they do not care for herding dogs. Herding with dogs is likely to result in the whole flock proceeding to the barn backwards – facing down the dog!
The Leicester Longwool has been of great historic and genetic value, having a part in the founding or improving of many other breeds, including the Border Leicester and the Corriedale. While distinguished by its past, this breed’s future is far from secure, and it is a conservation priority.
Did you know:
The Livestock Conservancy is America’s leading organization working to save over 150 heritage breeds from extinction. We rely on the support of our members, grants, and donations from the public to raise the $700,000 a year needed to maintain our conservation work with rare breeds of farm animals. Click here to learn how you can help.