Aug. 20 2015
From the Farm

I have been asked about conformation and our sheep. Hmm.


In a brief pause, I suggest that you acquire a copy of James Rebanks’ book, The Shepherd’s Life, published by Flatiron Books in May of this year and priced by them at $25.99 and by Amazon at $17.76. Rebanks comes from Cumbria in far northwestern England—Wordsworth’s and Wainwright’s Lake District—where the dominant breed is not our Border Leicesters, but Herdwicks. The ancestors of Herdwicks got to Cumbria with the Vikings and they can withstand the extreme conditions of climate and circumstance better than other breeds. The result is that Herdwicks outnumber all other breeds in Cumbria, and that sheep, rather than cattle, are the dominant species. And when the Cumbrian shepherds compete, they do so full on: one particular fellow spent forty hours preparing his Herdwick for a show. After the shows, the participants are for sale, both rams and ewes. (As an aside, the Lake District is where Beatrix Potter invested her life and her pounds sterling from Peter Rabbit into Herdwick raising. She owned 4,000 acres and fifteen farms at her death in 1943, most of which eventually went into the National Trust, and she served as President of the various Cumbrian Herdwick shows.)

None of that can happen with Border Leicesters in the United States. Our breed is spread across the nation and we do not have as many breeders. Not only would all breeders have to have the urge to compete, he and she would have to have the equipment and time to drive many miles to get to a show. We do have shows, and competition can be intense, but there are not that many participants.


Here you see Brown Mom’s Son. He is a fully functioning Border Leicester ram. If one were to sum up the requirements of conformation for a Border Leicester, it comes down to this: long and woolly. He is all of that, and he likes to have his picture taken. His sire came from a Minnesota flock and his dam from Oregon. He was born a twin around midnight in April, 2012. He has never been off our farm. He produces between 12 and 15 pounds of wool a year. I don’t know his weight. How well does his conformation carry forward into his progeny?


Here you see his offspring Jock, a growthy wether born as a bottle lamb at the end of March, 2014, who almost froze and couldn’t walk for three days until he was taken out of the kitchen and put on grass. Jock’s wool is more brown than his sire’s and the blaze on his nose is bigger, but he is taller and not so long. He is tough.


And here you see another 2014 product, browner than her sire but just as woolly.

We have learned as breeders not to select for only one quality in choosing mates so even though quality lustrous wool is our goal, we also consider diversity of genetic background and body length. So conformation is not everything. Candace Harding, the Kansan from whom we get our Great Pyrenees guardian dogs, puts it this way: “Pedigree indicates what the animal should be. Conformation indicates what the animal appears to be, but performance indicates what the animal really is.”

I think, all in all, that performance is what we watch for, rather than conformation.

Let’s see: if we assign 900 C.E. as the year Herdwicks got to the Lake District, our Border Leicesters have something over a thousand years to approach that level of conformity.

Stay tuned.

Copyright Jerry Wigglesworth, 2015