Wicklow Cheviot Sheep Owners Association
History
Wicklow Cheviot Sheep

Introduction

Mountain pastures occupy over a quarter of the half million acres in County Wicklow. The mountain range, the slopes of which form the pastures, extends from the lowlands of the North-East where the Sugar Loaf rises, to where the South Western slopes of Lugnaquilla and Keadeen merge into the plains of Carlow and borders of Wexford. The rugged grandeur of the lofty peaks and the mystic beauty of the glens and streams of this range are renowned far and wide, and constitute the background of Wicklow's scenic beauty and charm, and the gorse and heather-clad slopes are the foundation of pastoral farming in the country.

The Wicklow Mountains have been renowned from the earliest times for the native sheep, which are of a distinct type and have been indigenous to the mountains for centuries. Mountaineous environment, combined with skilful breeding, have evolved the Wicklow Mountain breed. This breed possesses in a marked degree a number of valuable characteristics, such as, extreme hardiness and freedom from foot rot and other diseases to which sheep are generally subject; and the ewes, as well as being prolific, are particularly good nurses.

Origin of the Breed

The date of origin of the Wicklow Mountain sheep can only be guessed at, from a consideration of relevant circumstances, principally concerned with the woollen industry and the general history of the country. There is concrete evidence to show that in the middle of the fifteenth century, there existed, in the Wicklow Mountains, a valuble breed of fine woolled sheep, which was distinct in appearence and character from any breed then in existence in these islands. At this time the Wicklow Mountain Sheep were contributing very materially to the reputation of Irish woollens, not only in the spun-wool markets of Holland and the manufactured-woollen markets of Flanders, but also in the markets for both these commodities in England.

The flourishing condition in which the Wicklow Mountain Sheep existed in the 18th century is indicated by the fact that in 1793 the Flannel Hall in Rathdrum was built by Earl Fitzwilliam at a cost of £3,500, to serve as a mart for the sale of produce of Wicklow Mountain Wool. A toll of 2d was charged for every 120 yards of flannel sold, and the receipts of this toll amounted to £300 annually.

 

Wicklow Cheviot Sheep

Foundation of the Society

Isolated attempts were made during the last century, by various breeders to improve the native breed. The most suitable breed for crossing was found to be the Scotch Cheviot, which were first introduced by the Barton family of Glendalough and the Kemmis family of Ballinacor.

Many of the smaller mountain breeders failed to introduce fresh blood, and the haphazard methods of breeding, and want of a proper ideal on the part of the owners, resulted in the breed becoming mixed and lacking character and uniformity. Although the fine quality of the wool continued to attract the attention of Bradford Spinners, and the superiority of the mutton was well known, many breeders were not reaping the same benefits as would accrue, if the breed bore the hall marks of a pure breed, namely, individuality, uniformity and definite character. Accordingly in 1926, a number of interested and leading sheep breeders, with the co-operation of the Department of Agriculture and the Wicklow Committee of Agriculture, established the Wicklow Mountain Sheep Breeders’ Society, with a view to giving encouragement to the breeding improvement, development and maintenance of the native sheep as a pure breed. The best flock owners throughout the county joined the Society. Annual inspection of ewes and rams were held at various centres and those which reached the required standard of excellence were entered in the Flock Book.

For some twenty years annual flock inspections were conducted by competent judges who were keen breeders and at present, registered flock owners have attained in large measure, uniformity of type and that most essential attribute, breed character.

The Society holds an annual Sale of Registered Rams in September, where approximately 600 Rams are exhibited. Thus the good work being performed is available for dissemination to flock owners, not only in County Wicklow, but to all counties which have mountain sheep husbandry.


Wicklow Cheviot Ewe and her two Suffolk Cross Lambs

Wicklow Mountain Ewes

Wicklow Mountain Ewes are eagerly sought after by lowland farmers throughout Ireland. They are extremely good foragers and are recognized as the best ewe to produce fat lambs off grass and grass alone. Direct crossing with the Suffolk is the common practice when Wicklow ewes are purchased by lowland farmers. This cross is regarded by many as having no equal for production of the type of lamb having the greatest modern demand – a medium quick maturing lamb, with most acceptable carcase quality. The pure-bred Wicklow lamb, although not as early to mature, when finished, has the carcase most sought after by the Continental trade.

An expanding sheep industry exists in this country, worth approximately 77 million euros. This income is to a large extent dependent on mountain sheep as the ultimate source of breeding stock. Sheep husbandry of the lowlands could not exist without the annual outpourings of comparatively cheaply produced surplus breeding ewes and lambs. The whole industry hinges on the availability of a sufficiently cheap supply from the hills. Thus we get a picture of the relationship and inter-dependence of hill-farming, store sheep farmers and lowland farmers who specialise in fat lamb production.


Trial of Wicklow Cheviot Ewes

In the Autumn of 1982 the Wicklow Cheviot Sheep Owners’ Association, with the co-operation of professor Ian Gordon, Dr. Frank Crosbie and Mr. Jim Fitzsimons, initiated a trial of Wicklow Cheviot Ewes at the U.C.D. farm at Lyons Estate, Celbridge. Thirty unselected Wicklow ewes were bought at two sales in Wicklow. Half were mated with a Suffolk lamb and half with a Texel ram. The ewes were run with the main flock at Lyons, under ordinary commercial conditions, and the thirty ewes produced sixty lambs in the Spring of 1983, seven singles, sixteen doubles and seven trebles. This should once and for all silence the critics who claim that the Wicklow Ewes are not prolific mothers. When properly managed and fed they are as good, if not better, than most breeds.

Peter McGrath

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