Ancient sheep in Bourne Park

Wiltshire Horn ram. Bourne Park April 2015.

Wiltshire Horn ram. Bourne Park April 2015.

Some locals in Bridge have been rather intrigued by the horned sheep now resident in Bourne Park, so has asked the farmer to identify the breed.

They are called Wiltshire Horns and, as the name suggests, the rams have horns and they were originally bred in Wiltshire centuries ago. However it is thought that a very similar breed, or even possibly the same one, may have been brought to Britain by the Romans, for sheep skeletons of almost identical proportions have been discovered at Roman sites in the county. It is commonly believed that all domestic sheep are descended from the European Mouflon, a type of wild sheep which still lives in Corsica and Sardinia, just on the doorstep of Rome itself, but modern genetic studies seem to indicate that the European Mouflon is in fact a domestic sheep from a previous age which went feral in the landscape, so the earliest wild origins of one of our most familiar farm animals are still unclear.

By the end of the 18th century the Wiltshire Horn was farmed in vast numbers across Wiltshire and there are contemporary reports of hundreds of thousands roaming an unfenced Salisbury Plain. Being relatively agile and hardy they were particularly suited to downland grazing where walking long distances and climbing up and down chalk hills to graze poor grass growing on thin dry soil in the full heat of summer was often necessary. But the Wiltshire Horn had one other huge advantage over other sheep in that respect, the fact that it shed its fleece for summer.

It is no surprise then that, right through its history, this breed has been farmed for its meat, not its wool, which was not generally used at all: and it was this odd quirk in its biology that nearly led to the breed’s extinction. By the 19th century the wool trade had become immensely important to the British economy, so the Wiltshire Horn was shunned in favour of sheep with a fleece that could be sheared for wool production.

Numbers declined until, in 1923, the breed was saved from the brink of extinction and continued on by a few enthusiasts.

Ironically Britain’s economic drivers once more lean towards meat production rather than wool and the Wiltshire Horn, being an agile, low maintenance sheep which does not need shearing or dipping is once more in favour with farmers across the country.

Primary reference source: The Wiltshire Horn Sheep Society Ltd.

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