When I went to the Chagford Show last week I went and had a look at the sheep. There are three breeds of sheep associated with Dartmoor – two now sadly rare and one very common. Here are a few pictures of the three breeds along with some background information. Thank you also to Matthew Cole who is a Dartmoor Commoner and grazes the Trust’s Upper Plym moorland who kindly told me about the various breeds. His father Arnold sadly died late last year and was an expert and champion for the Dartmoor whiteface sheep – see here.
Dartmoor whiteface – an indigenous breed of sheep and one of the oldest UK breeds. There is a Whiteface Dartmoor Sheep Breeders Association. Whitefaces are also known as widecombe Whitefaces. They are a hardy sheep but they are not able to stay on the moor all year round. They are overwintered on the lower ground around the home farms. They are popular with Natural England as they tend not to eat heather!
Prior to the Foot and Mouth crisis in 2001 there were around 2000 breeding Whiteface Dartmoor Sheep. However they were hit hard by Foot and Mouth and today there are between 900-1500 which means they are on the Rare Breeds Survival Trust’s ‘At Risk’ category.
Dartmoor greyface – often called the Improved Dartmoor as they have been cross bred with Nottinghamshire and Leicester longwools. Again hardy but can’t stay out on the moor all year. In 1997 1800 there were greyface ewes, they are now on the RBST ‘At risk’ list cat 5 1500-3000 ewes.
Scotch blackface – Hardly all year round sheep – debate about when they came to Dartmoor – either in 1820-30s or in the 1860s. Coming from the ‘north’ they were more hardy and as a result could be left out on the moor all year round. Scotch blackface sheep are now the commonest sheep on Dartmoor by a long shot.
Sheep have been on on Dartmoor since prehistoric times and the Dartmoor Whiteface may originate from the original Iron Age Soay sheep. For more information on Dartmoor’s sheep see here.