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Ryeland sheep

The Ryeland breed of sheep is one of the oldest British breeds and, until recently, was classified as a rare breed. Now sufficient numbers of them exist for them to be re-classed as a "minority breed".

The breed originated in Herefordshire on land which grew a great deal of rye grass (hence the name) and the earliest references to the breed date back to the 12th century when the monks of Herefordshire were trading in Ryeland wool. Ryeland wool traded from Leominster later became known asĀ "Lemster ore"for the large amounts of gold it earned. Ryeland sheep used to grazed at Leominster Priory.

The benefits of the Ryeland breed are twofold. Firstly they produce excellent meat lambs on grass and milk alone, and secondly they produce a fine-woolled fleece ideal for hand spinning.


The Ryeland sheep was developed in the southern part of the county, in an area which is known as Archenfield, and it is probably the oldest of the recognised British breeds. Youatt, writing in 1837, suggests that the Ryeland descends from the Spanish Merino sheep imported into England by the Romans.

The name Ryeland is derived from the farming system that was practised on the granges, where rye was grown for bread and its long clean straw was used for thatching. When the rye had been harvested the sheep were turned out to graze. It was soon found that in order to keep the fine wool of the sheep, for which they are most famous, it was necessary for the sheep to be run in covered pens so they were sheltered from the cold at night.

Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) was presented with a pair of Ryeland wool stockings and was so pleased with them that she apparently swore thereafter to wear clothes made only of Ryeland wool. In the Tudor and Stuart periods the English fine wool industry and the west of England broadcloth industry used Ryeland wool extensively.

The original Ryeland sheep was a slow-growing sheep, but during the 18th century the necessity of feeding an ever-growing urban population prompted breeders to develop "improved" breeds, which would be bigger and grow more quickly. The quality of the fleece now became of secondary importance. Robert Blakewell began his programme of sheep improvement in the 1740s, culminating in the development of the New Leicester which was ready for sale as mutton a year earlier than any other breed.

In a Charter of King James I (1603-1625) Leominster was granted an extra fair, in part to ensure the better sale and dispersion of Ryeland wool.

Farmers soon began to cross the Ryeland with other breeds such as Dorsets, Southdowns and the Leicester to increase the carcass weight. By the middle of the 19th century most "Ryelands" were no longer fine-woolled heathland sheep but mutton-producing downland cross-breeds.

King George III (1760-1820) kept a pure-bred crop of Ryelands on heath and bracken at Windsor on the advice of his agricultural advisor Joseph Banks, after having tried to keep Merinos. However, attempts to keep a clean breed line were few and far between. By 1903 only fifteen pure-bred Ryeland flocks remained.

During the 1700s the Ryeland was grazed extensively in the lower parts of Monmouthshire, Herefordshire and western Worcestershire, and was common in north-western Gloucestershire.

Towards the end of the 1700s the demand for mutton rose, partly due to the Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815), and this caused the price to more than double between 1780 and 1800. The price of wool remained fairly constant at this time. As mutton prices rose the Ryeland began to be crossed with other breeds to try and increase its size. Dorsets, Southdowns and most commonly Leicesters, as well as Shropshires, Radnors, Cotswolds and Lincolns were all used to cross breed. Although the size was increased many people complained that the taste had declined. In addition, the "improved" sheep was more susceptible to disease and the quality of the wool deteriorated. Merchants started to favour longwool breeds, which already gave much heavier clips of wool per ewe. It also became apparent that the offspring of a Ryeland and Leicester cross had an unacceptably high mortality rate.

After the Napoleonic Wars the demand for mutton continued to rise, as did the demand for long wools. This caused an increase in cross breeding and soon many breeds had become mixed breeds. It was not long before pure-bred Ryelands were only found in a handful of flocks around the country. The low point in Ryeland numbers was reached around 1900, and in 1903 the Ryeland Flock Book Society was formed in Hereford in an attempt to halt the decline in numbers. In the same year the first Flock Book was published. The first Flock Book listed fourteen pure-bred flocks in Herefordshire, Breconshire, Monmouthshire and Worcestershire

In 1918 the Flock Book was closed to foundation stock. The enthusiasm of the society and its members helped counteract the decline in numbers, and by 1920 there were 80 registered Ryeland flocks and Ryelands were being exported to Australia and New Zealand. By 1924 New Zealand had 4,000 Ryelands in 35 flocks.

In the 1950s and 1960s numbers began to decline again, and by the early 1970s the breed had almost died out. It is probably only due to the efforts of the Rare Breed Survivals Trust, founded in 1973, that the breed still survives at all. In 1974 there were only 980 registered breeding Ryeland ewes. By 1979 this had increased to 1,332. In 1986 the Ryeland was no longer officially listed as a rare breed in Britain, and by 1992 there were nearly 3,000 registered ewes.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2005]