Geek Notes Shropshire Sheep

Shropshire sheep are a medium sized lowland (or downland) breed with black ears, face and legs. The Shropshire breed has one of the oldest flock books and is the result of breeding sheep local to Shropshire and Staffordshire (hardy and with good feet, quality fleece and weight) with the Southdown (to remove the horns) and the improved Leicester (docility) giving a sheep which rapidly became very popular all over the world in the 19th century. It was the most common breed in America by 1930. Clun Forest, Llanwenog, Kerry Hill, Outaouais are just some of the breeds that have benefited from breeding with Shropshires. They are easy to tame, gentle and wonderful mothers. I’ve seen a new mum see off a hardened sheep dog who had inadvertently come too close to her lamb.

Unfortunately, due to economic pressures, war and fashion, by 1973 there were only 403 breeding ewes left. This lead to the breed being registered as rare until 2012 when the number of breeding ewes reached 3,000. The Shropshire is a large sheep and fattens well which has led to its popularity as a terminal sire for sheep destined for the table. Shropshires are also used to graze under vineyards and in Christmas tree plantations as they don’t tend to eat trees like other breeds of sheep.

Breeders have recently started improving fleece quality which, like so many breeds of sheep, has been neglected. The fleece of Shropshire sheep is quite different to that of upland sheep. Instead of being silky and lustrous, it is bouncy and light with tight waves (crimp). They have a heavy fleece with a soft handle, staple length of between 6-10cm and a micron range of 24.5-33. The fleece is classified as fine by the British Wool Marketing Board.

You may be unfamiliar with downland wool to spin or knit with as the lustre breeds appear to be very fashionable now. Shropshire is typical as it is springy, resilient and lacks the sheen associated with fleeces like Wensleydale and Bluefaced Leicester. There is enough crimp to make the fleece elastic and easy to spin. It doesn’t felt well unless you are really determined (I have wet felted it by hand and I’m sure my shoulders broadened in the process and when I threw loosely crocheted tops in the washing machine to felt they came out depressingly the same). So use the fleece for spinning as it will give you a bouncy, light, airy, hard wearing yarn when woollen spun.

A Shropshire fleece will weigh in around 2-5kg and yield is good at about 70%. The fleece takes dye well especially natural dyes. The yarn is better for cables than lace work and is medium soft.