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A Rare Breed of British Origin
The now rare breed of sheep known as the Shropshire evolved in the eighteenth century from the native sheep of the county of the same name in western England. The two original breeds that contributed the most to the makeup of the Shropshire as we know it today were the Long Mynd (or Mound) sheep from the hills near Wales, and the Morfe Common sheep which were found in a restricted area of some sixteen hundred hectares alongside the River Severn. These latter were known as “the pride and boast of Shropshire”.
The Mynd sheep were black-faced and horned – a fairly typical mountain breed. The Morfe variety also had small horns and speckled or dark faces and legs. The Morfe breed had been recognized from as early as 1300 – it was this breed that produced the Shropshire wool known as the choicest and dearest in England. In 1694 wool from this county was described as "not to be equalled in its kind, by any part of the world." (At that time the Merino was virtually unknown outside Spain, not arriving in Britain until 1791.)
By the early nineteenth century, the Shropshire breed had become established as a polled, medium-sized sheep with soft black face and legs and a distinctive white-woolled poll and cheeks. A breed Society was formed in 1882, and the Shropshire is distinguished as having been the first ever breed to have a published flock book.
In the second half of the nineteenth century the Shropshire became very popular as an almost ideal dual-purpose breed producing both excellent mutton and a good-quality fleece. It was also prolific and fast-growing. The breed was exported throughout the world and its popularity continued into the early part of the twentieth century. However, by the 1980s it had fallen out of favour in Britain and was officially considered a Rare Breed with only 500 to 800 breeding ewes.
The Shropshire was introduced into New Zealand in 1864 and increased rapidly with the advent of refrigerated shipping in the 1880s. It produced excellent ‘fat lambs’ as required at that period, and had the advantage of having a better fleece than the Downs-type meat breeds. The rams were also used as terminal sires with both Merino and Cheviot ewes to produce lambs for export.
Despite its versatility (it can be run almost anywhere in New Zealand) the breed has also declined markedly in numbers here. Today Shropshires are one of the rarest breeds in the country.
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