Commonly called "Leicesters," they disappeared in the U.S. in the early 20th century and were re-imported from Tasmania in 1990. They are engaging, warm and beautiful sheep with heavy, soft-handling fleeces of lustrous curls.
During the 1700's, an innovative English farmer named Robert Bakewell realized that careful selection of breeding animals resulted in improvements in his flock overall. He practiced his selective breeding skills on his own farm with cattle, hogs, horses and sheep.
Bakewell's 400 acre farm "Dishley Grange" was located in Leicestershire, in the east Midlands of Britain. Local longwool sheep were of a large, coarse, heavy-boned, slow-growing type. Using these, and other types collected on his travels, he worked to produce an improved sheep. As time progressed, Bakewell became famous for his "New Leicester" sheep and rented out his rams for high fees. Little is known of his methods but he believed in breeding the "best to the best" which probably meant significant inbreeding by today's standards.
In the 1920's, Leicester Longwools were imported by Australia and New Zealand, where they were used for crossing with Merinos to yield a larger, dual-purpose animal. Though Leicester numbers have diminished worldwide, their genetic contribution to the sheep world is indisputable. Dozens of other breeds, including the Wensleydale, have been created using large percentages of Leicester genetics.US President George Washington corresponded with Bakewell, and imported "New Leicester" rams to improve his own Mt. Vernon flock. Leicesters established themselves in the United States and were common until the late 19th century when newer breeds became fashionable. By the 1930s, they had disappeared here. Re-imported in 1990 by Colonial Williamsburg, Leicesters are once again being appreciated in the United States.
The philosophy of genetic conservation is based on the desire to maintain the current stock as purebred. Different breeds were developed for different purposes. Keeping a variety of breeds is the best way to ensure that the qualities that we may need remain available. A rare breed should not be forced to meet current fashionable standards but should be promoted for its own unique and irreplaceable characteristics. The conservation of a rare breed is not only for preservation but for the possible future utilization of its unique characteristics
The fleece of the Leicester Longwool is prized by hand spinners and crafters for its curl, soft handle, and lustrous beauty. The fleece generally weighs from 11-18 pounds, although heavier fleeces have been recorded. The wool has an evenness of length with a spiral tipped staple length of up to 14 inches in twelve months growth. The wool dyes exceptionally well, maintaining the purity of color; the natural luster still shines through. This premium wool is very versatile, working well for combing for worsted products, carding for woolen products, and felting projects. The Leicester can be shorn twice per year. The Leicester Longwool is a medium to large polled breed with a high quality carcass, whose poll is well covered with locks of wool. Mature rams weigh 200-300 pounds and ewes weigh 150-200 pounds. The breed is white and natural in color.
The Leicester Longwool ram is an excellent sire and when crossed with other breeds will stamp their well known qualities of feed efficiency and heavy lustrous fleece on the offspring. The Leicester Longwool ewe is a very good mother with exceptional longevity and milk production. The breed is very docile and easy to handle. Leicester Longwools are known for their adaptability to live and thrive under a wide variety of conditions and climates. The fleece of the Leicester Longwool is very distinctive and a very important part of the breed.