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A Rare Breed of British Origin
The Ryeland, which has been known since at least the 1300s, developed in the poor and rather wet southern districts of Herefordshire in Great Britain where a great quantity of rye used to be grown. It was originally rather a small sheep, white faced and polled, with a marbled nose and woolly legs. Essentially a wool breed in historical times, it was known for its ability to thrive on very poor feed.
In 1834 Professor Youatt noted that it would “endure privation of food better than any other breed”, while Sir Joseph Banks (the same eminent scientist who accompanied Cook on his first voyage to New Zealand in 1769) maintained that “Ryeland sheep deserve a niche in the temple of famine”.
Like the Romney Marsh, another breed from a low, wet region, it was also very resistant to footrot.
Today’s Ryeland is a somewhat bigger-boned sheep than the breed when first developed and is often regarded as primarily a meat breed. Originally, however, it was noted principally for the fineness of its fleece which was unequalled by any other British breed. The earliest writers on sheep speak of it as being pre-eminent among short-woolled breeds which produced the most desired wool. In order to protect the wool and produce a sounder fleece it was the practice from early times for Ryelands to be ‘cotted’ in winter, that is, shut into a building rather than a sheep-fold in an open field. Today Ryeland wool is still used to produce high quality woollen goods.
Introduced into New Zealand in 1901 (Otago Witness 5 June 1901), the Ryeland had a burst of popularity, contributing to the production of lambs for the overseas market, but there are now probably fewer than 500 remaining here.
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