Portland Sheep

Meat fit for royalty! by Norman Jones

In the 19th century Portland mutton had achieved a wide reputation for the excellence of its flavour. Indeed on his visits to Weymouth King George III always demanded Portland mutton and so did the Queen's Own Yeomanry during their annual camps dinner at the Gloucester Hotel.

In those days it was more normal to eat mutton than lamb because the other properties of sheep, in particular wool, made it more valuable to have live rather than dead sheep.

For centuries the people on the island of Portland largely depended on sheep for their very survival. The animals were allowed to roam freely on the cliff faces and common land and in the evening would be folded on the residents strips of land. There they would be milked from which cheeses were made to support them during the winter months and to enable them to pay their tithes.

The folding helped to fertilise the strips for the corn crops and even provided fuel for their fires. The nature of the grazing was sparse and varied which ensure that the Portland breed was small and took longer to mature and its meat was consequently highly flavoured.

First day out in the big wide world

The fall In the mid nineteenth century there were 4,000 sheep on the island, but from that time onwards the numbers declined to the extent that the last of the breeding stock from Portland were sold at Dorchester market in 1913. The reason for this decline was due to a number of factors. The growth of the stone industry in Portland together with the building of prisons took away much of the common grazing land. Also the influence of Thomas Bakewell, who introduced breeding programmes to produce larger sheep and earlier finished lamb, made it impossible for the small Portland to compete commercially. People were also no longer prepared to pay premium prices for the highly flavoured Portland mutton. As a result the breed almost became extinct.

Now keep perfectly still

The rise of the Portland Fortunately in 1973 a group of organisations recognised the threat of many of the native farm breeds and the Rare Breeds Survival Trust was formed with the aim of identifying, saving and promoting any of these threatened animals. At that stage only 77 breeding Portland ewes were identified in various parts of the country. A breeding programme was set up and animals registered in a Combined Flock Book.

The responsibility for supporting this programme was passed in 1993 to the Portland Sheep Breeders' Group. Their task was to ensure the breed's survival, to identify its qualities and promote the breed to potential new breeders. The success of their achievement was recognised in 2006 by the Marsh Award for Conservation in Genetic Bio-Diversity, run by the Marsh Christian Trust in partnership with the Rare Breeds' Survival Trust.

The submission for this award was made on the basis of an increase in population of sheep to more than 2,000 animals, a group membership of more than 100 breeders and for its imaginative research into the qualities of the breed and its promotion. The focus of this promotion has been to identify the breed as an ideal sheep for smallholders.

Breed characteristics The characteristics of the breed are as follows: l It is a small sheep of a primitive type within the Down Groups of breeds (average weight of adult ewe is 38-40kg) l The face and legs are a tan colour, typically lighter around the eyes and muzzle.

l The rams and ewes are horned and are heavily spiralled in the rams, usually with a black line. Horns are much in demand by stick makers. Wool is creamy white, close and fine with a short staple. It is highly regarded by hand spinners.

The ewes normally have a single lamb.

Ewes breed out of season.

lPortlands are a slow maturing breed. Most animals are not slaughtered until over a year old and as a result the meat is of excellent flavour.

Commercial potential The commercial potential of the sheep rests largely in the rarity value of breeding stock, the quality of its wool and the unique flavour of its meat.

Superior breeding stock command premium prices at rare breed sales.

King of the castle

This year a Portland fleece won the "Golden Fleece" award at "Sheep 2006" - the national sheep event of the year.

One hand spinner who spins and knits several fleeces every year gave the following reasons for choosing a Portland Fleece: "Fleeces have a lovely staple length, locks are strong and crimp is normally consistent. The fleeces are easy to prepare for spinning in the grease, they flick card easily without putting unnecessary stress on the locks. Fleeces always spin up to soft, non-scratchy wool. I find the fleeces consistent in their shade of white/cream with no problem of patches of "yellowing."

The skins make excellent rugs and have been used to make waistcoats.

As a result of its slow maturity the meat has an excellent flavour and conforms to the renewed interest in mutton. This combined with a recommended two-three week hanging period and slow cooking ensures a highly superior meat dish. It has recently been adopted by the Slow Food movement as a unique product to be saved.

The horns of a four-year-old ram and older are very much in demand by stick makers and the younger horns are suitable for button making.

Portland Sheep are very easy to manage.

They are very thrifty and being small can be stocked at 2:1 compared to a commercial breed and are very suitable for conservation grazing. It is normally advisable to supply some concentrates prior to lambing and shortly thereafter. Care should be taken not to overfeed lambing ewes otherwise ram lamb horn buds can cause problems during lambing.

Easy to handle Being small the Portlands are a very manageable size and easy to handle by men or women.

Since ewes have a single lamb there are very few lambing problems and there are less risks from foxes. Portland ewes are very milky and are excellent mothers. They can lamb at any time of the year, which may suit an out of season management requirement.

The Portland is very hardy and comparatively disease free. As a result of Scrapie testing the breed is very resistant and mainly ARR/ARR.

The Portland Sheep Breeders' Group was greatly honoured to receive the Marsh Award for Conservation in Genetic Bio-Diversity and feel greatly privileged to join a very select group of unsung heroes from every walk of life. The financial contribution received will greatly assist the group in further research into the potential of the breed and its promotion.

lDetailed information about the breed is contained in a book entitled "Portland Sheep - a Breed with a History" by Norman Jones. This together with information about the Portland Sheep Breeders' Group is available on the website www.portlandsheep.org.uk. Acquisition of sheep is either at the Rare Breed Survival Trust supported sales throughout the country or by contact with local breeders who can be identified through the Breeders Group secretary Tessa Hucklesby 01929 459082 or membership secretary Michelle Jones 01297 561072.

Reproduced by kind permission from the Small Holder Magazine (www.smallholder.co.uk)