Wiltshire Horn Male Ram

Last year when reading a book on the history of Wiltshire (borrowed from Geoff Frost), I first encountered mention of the Wiltshire Horned Sheep.  Also known as the Western or Horned Croc, both sexes were horned but their fleece was light and they carried little wool, with none at all on their undersides due, it was said, to the dry warm chalky soil.  They had been bred with particularly long sturdy legs to deal with the particular method of grazing which developed on The Plain, as described in the following passage.

“Until the end of the 17th century, Salisbury Plain consisted almost entirely of grassland on which immense flocks of sheep grazed.  In the middle of the 17th century John Aubrey wrote that although “the turfe is of sweet short grasse, good for the sheep and delightfull to the eye” there was ”not a tree or rarely a bush to shelter one from a shower”.

Wiltshire Horn Female

But changes were taking place and a system of farming began which was practised on the Plain for many generations and was known as “sheep and corn”.  This entailed the sheep being grazed on the downland during the summer and being folded on the more sheltered arable land in the winter – usually from October to March.  A variation of this procedure was adopted on some farms where the flock would remain on the downs during the day, returning to the folding area in the late afternoon.

Folding or penning consisted of erecting hurdles or sheep netting so as to enclose part of a field of roots (generally turnips), an area of one square chain (or 22 yds x 22 yds) being allowed for 200 sheep per day.  Early every morning a new area would be enclosed and the sheep moved into it, and in this way they were provided with a fresh supply of turnips, the ground received a concentrated application of manure from the sheep, and the land could be ploughed as soon as the hurdles were moved forward.  After ploughing it was sown to wheat and so completed the cycle of sheep and corn.”

Wiltshire Horn Lamb

The article recorded that even though The Rural Cyclopedia of 1849 considered the breed to be “now nearly extinct”, it was still in existence in 1984.

I was fascinated by this insight into the way of life practised by the former inhabitants of our village and the surrounding area.  Since the article mentioned the breed as surviving to 1984, I thought I would try to see if they had made it into the 21st century.

A search on the web led me to the Wiltshire Horn Sheep Society www.wiltshirehorn.org.uk.   Here I learned that the breed was saved from extinction by a small group of enthusiastic breeders who formed the Wiltshire Horn* Sheep Society in 1923.  In the 1970’s the breed came under the protection of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust because numbers were so low.

1627 Village

However, in recent years the number of registered sheep has significantly increased, with the breed has today forming a large commercial flock.  This has mostly been to the fact that the Wiltshire Horn has a short fleece that naturally sheds in the spring leaving a short hair coat.  The fleece will then grow again in the autumn to offer protection during the winter months.  Wool production has become uneconomic due to labour costs associated with rounding up sheep for shearing, dipping, etc, so a self-shedding sheep offers clear advantages.

The website lists 73 members holding flocks, of which roughly half are in Wiltshire, but I was aware of ever having seen one locally.  So, it was great if bizarre, to get my first view of a Wiltshire Horned sheep not in Wiltshire, but in the US!  While on holiday in New England in May, Graham and I visited Plimoth Plantation, a recreation of the small farming town built by the first permanent English settlers in New England. 

Town of Plimoth Plantation

The town of Plimoth Plantation is based on the one existing in 1627, just seven years after the arrival of the Mayflower at New Plymouth.  It has modest timber-framed cottages, a meeting hall, raised-bed gardens, and a variety of rare breeds of livestock.  These are there not only to show the sort of livestock which would have been taken out to New England by the settlers but also as part of a conservation project of rare and heritage breeds.

And there we found a small flock of Wiltshire Horned sheep.  We felt quite proud that the sheep whose ancestors had been bred on The Plain so close to our home were now acting out the part of those pioneer sheep in front of the thousands of visitors who visit Plimoth Plantation.

*The breed is now known as the “Wiltshire Horn”, at least in the UK, whereas it retains the name of Wiltshire Horned in the US.