Norfolk Horn Sheep

What is the history of Norfolk Horn Sheep?

The Norfolk Horn (also known as Blackface Norfolk Horned, Norfolk Horned, Old Norfolk or Old Norfolk Horned) is one of the British black-faced sheep breeds.

The Norfolk type has been recognized for more than 380 years, being mentioned in The Beauties of England, Cambridgeshire by Robert Reyce in 1610.

It was a hardy, active sheep, bred to graze the heathlands and the poorest soils; lean, long-legged and often bare-bellied. It was described as a 'restless' breed, also very agile, some early flock masters turning to other breeds because the Norfolk jumped hedges and walls 'like goats'. But the mutton was renowned for its flavour, leanness and succulence, said to be more like venison.

In the eighteenth century the breed began to lose favour in East Anglia, Southdowns and Leicesters gradually replaced them.

Norfolks were crossed with Southdowns in an attempt to improve the conformation and the Suffolk was the result.

This was recognised as a breed in its own right in 1859, with the Suffolk Sheep Society being formed in 1886.

Sadly the Norfolk breed was not considered of sufficient merit to warrant improvement by selective breeding, all enthusiasm being centred on the more modern breeds. It is probable that the Norfolk Horn never reached its full genetic potential, as it was bred to make use of the very poorest land and was probably always in poor condition.

Along with the gradual changes to farming systems in East Anglia the Norfolk four course rotation and new arable crops came winter feed of quality and quantity and the need for fast-maturing sheep. So around 1800 the Norfolk lost its dominance and by 1846 David Low in Domesticated Animals of Great Britain commented on the decline of "the perfectly pure Norfolk" and stated that "it is now becoming rare and will soon cease to exist". It continued to decline in numbers for another century.

In 1907 there were 10 or 11 flocks in Norfolk and Suffolk.

By the end of the First World War only J D Sayer's flock at Lackford, Bury St Edmunds, existed. He also ran a large flock of Suffolks.

By 1930 the Norfolk flock had halved presumably inbreeding was causing problems.

In 1948 only two rams were left both semi cryptorchids, but luckily both fertile.

J D Sayer died in 1954 and his depleted flock was split between relations, and then given to Whipsnade Zoo in 1959.

In 1965 the flock consisted of 6 ewes and 7 rams and in 1968 the flock moved to the National Agricultural Centre at Stoneleigh. These sheep were by now so inbred that expansion of the flock was extremely difficult and a back crossing programme was started in that year using Suffolk ewes as the foundation, being mated in each generation to pure Norfolk rams.

In 1973, 7/8 and 15/16 Norfolk ram lambs were being produced, and then the last pure Norfolk ram died after serving his ewes.

Given the shortage of pure bred fertile rams (the last pure-bred ram died in 1973), a related breed, the Suffolk, as well as unrelated breeds such as the Wiltshire Horn, Llanwenog and Swaledale, were used to breed animals that were more than 90% (15/16ths) Norfolk Horn.

In 1986, the breed was recognised by the RBST, appearing on their Priority List at that time as "Category 1, Critical". The breed has since increased in numbers, and was rated in the 2005 RBST watchlist as "Category 4, At Risk".

What are the characteristics of Norfolk Horn Sheep?

  • This breed is raised primarily for meat.
  • The Norfolk Horn developed to do well in dry, cold conditions and on very sparse vegetation. It can thrive where other breeds would lose condition.
  • They are hardy, animals with good maternal instincts and excellent foraging abilities.
  • The breed is prolific and usual lambing percentages are around 170%.
  • Lambs usually weigh around 3.5-4kg and very few lambing difficulties occur.
  • Norfolk Horn is adapted to surviving on poor forage in cool but dry environments.
  • The breed is long-legged with black faces and legs, rangy breed with a thick white fleece.
  • Both sexes have horns, although these are larger in the males.The wool on newborn lambs is invariably darker or mottled and this changes to white as the lamb gets older, although a limited amount of black fibres or black spots is permissible in the adult fleece.

What is the weight of mature Norfolk Horn Sheep?

Norfolk Horn ram is in the range of 90 - 95 kg and a mature ewe 70 kg.

Beth Fincham
Windmill Farm Park - Leicester

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