Choosing the Right Breed of Sheep

hill-sheepOnce you have decided you’ve got the right facilities, land, buildings and decided what you want your sheep for (see our DVD 'Establishing Your Flock' for help in these areas), selecting the right breed is the next important decision.

There are over eighty recognised sheep breeds in the UK, including rare breeds and some of the more popular continental breeds – so one of these is bound to meet your criteria!

To see a range of different breeds, visit a local agricultural show where breeders will have their best examples on show – they will be enthusiastic to talk to you and convince you that their breed is the best choice!

The National Sheep Association run a bi-annual event at the Three Counties Showground in Malvern, as well as regional shows during the Spring and Summer months. Visiting these shows is a great way to see sheep of every variety, watch the sheepdog sales, a shearing competition and visit a wide variety of trade stands displaying everything from feed supplements to the latest handling equipment.

Sheep breeds are generally categorised as Hill and Upland, Lowland (including the Down and Longwood breeds), Crossbreeds, Rare and Primitive Breeds, and Speciality – those with characteristics suited for a specific purpose, such as dairy sheep.

There are two main considerations when choosing your breed. Firstly, handling – some breeds of sheep are simply too large and heavy for a small person to manage alone. A horned breed may be awkward to handle, and there’s always the possibility of injury to children. Next, environment - it’s probably best to choose a breed that is suited to the climate and conditions on your holding. There is, of course, an important third consideration: you must choose a breed of sheep that has the looks and traits that appeal to you!

herdwickHill & Upland Sheep

The Hill and Upland breeds are generally hardy, rugged sheep well suited to harsh conditions. Their grazing helps maintain the ecological balance and distinctive landscape of the hills and mountainsides.

In their natural environment, they will forage across a wide range and drink from streams – this can make them less suited to a domestic life – they may be hard to catch, and they tend to be very good at escaping from small paddocks!

Examples of Hill and Upland Breeds:

  • Scottish Blackface
  • Cheviot
  • Swaledale
  • Dalesbred
  • Herdwick
  • Rough Fell
  • Welsh Mountain

hampshire down ramLowland Sheep

Lowland breeds tend to be heavier and more docile, and are suited to areas with good grazing and a temperate climate.

Examples of Down Breeds:

  • Hampshire Down
  • Dorset Down
  • Ryeland
  • Southdown

Longwool Sheep

cotswoldThe Longwool breeds have had probably the most profound effect on the UK sheep population. The large-framed Bluefaced Leicester and the Border Leicester have been used for generations as ‘crossing rams’ – mated to hill ewes to produce prolific crossbred daughters for lowland farms.

Although their wool no longer produces the great wealth it once did, it’s finding favour again with artisan producers and craftspeople.

Examples ofLongwool Breeds:

  • Cotswold
  • Leicester
  • Lincoln
  • Wensleydale

jacobRare Breed Sheep

Thanks to the efforts of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, and the dedicated breeders of rare and primitive breeds, many once-critically endangered breeds have been preserved.

Examples of Rare and Primitive Breed:

  • Soay
  • Jacob
  • Ronaldsay
  • Manx Loghtan

meatlincSpecialist Breeds

At the other end of the spectrum, there are breeds of sheep that have been carefully selected and bred to develop specific desirable characteristics, for example, the Friesland for its milking abilities.

Examples of Specialist Breeds:

  • DAIRY: British milksheep, Friesland, etc.
  • Easicare
  • Meatlinc


Have a look at our 'Sheep Breeds' article for further information on the different breeds within the UK.





See our DVD 'Establishing Your Flock' for interviews with breeders from each breed type - programme 1 in the DVD series 'Sheep on Your Smallholding'