One of the most interesting things about the history of UK sheep breeds is the genetic linkage between various types that we today recognise as completely different breeds. What some purists may now look down upon as ‘crossbreeding’ is, in fact, the mechanism by which our traditional breeds evolved in the first place, so not something to be scorned at all. In last month’s feature I mentioned two breeds that had played important roles in the development of Poll Dorset and Dorset Horn sheep — the Portland and the Ryeland. Therefore it makes sense to take a closer look at those breeds now.
The Portland breed draws its name from Portland Bill, a rocky outcrop off the Dorset coast. A similar kind of sheep would at one time have been found throughout the South West of England, but the type became restricted to Portland Bill as the mainland sheep were improved and developed by crossing with a related breed from Somerset.
Youatt, writing in 1837, states that: “In the Isle of Portland, and formerly extending more than they do now into the neighbourhood of Weymouth, and about Wareham and Poole, there is a very small breed of sheep. They are horned, short in the carcase, and many of them black-muzzled, and having black and white wool intermixed on the lower part of the leg. When fat they do not weigh more than 8 or 10lbs per quarter, and the fleece varies from 1½ to 2lbs. The flesh is delicate, and somewhat sought after; but the breed is little cultivated, except in the localities which Nature has assigned to it.”
The modern Portland still exhibits many of the early characteristics of the tan faced pre-Roman breeds, although it is unique among the more primitive breeds in that it is able to breed at any time of year.
The last of the original population were removed from the island in 1920, to be sold in Dorchester market, but were in such poor condition that the auctioneer struggled to get a bid! By this time the breed had become more or less extinct. In 1974 the RBST stepped in to trace the last remaining animals, and a breeding programme was established to safeguard the future of the breed. Portland sheep were reintroduced to the island in 1977.
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