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Black faced sheep on the moor
Sheep creep © Tim Sandless (Legendary Dartmoor)
White faced sheep © Tim Sandless (Legendary Dartmoor)
History of Sheep on Dartmoor
Sheep feature in many expressions in the English language, such as: feeling a bit sheepish, might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, counting sheep, woolly thinking, cast a sheep's eye, separate the sheep from the goats, a wolf in sheep's clothing and mutton dressed as lamb. Black sheep were, in the past, less valuable because it was more difficult to dye their wool and hence the expression 'the black sheep of the family'.
There are many place names on Dartmoor based on sheep and the wool trade such as: Dip Trough Gate, Redaven Sheep Dip, Reddaway's Sheepwash and The Washing Place. These all refer to places near rivers or streams where the sheep were washed or, in later years, dipped. However, surprisingly, Sheepstor is not one of them, as this name is thought to derive from an Old English word scyttel meaning a bar or bolt which refers to the shape of the tor when viewed from certain points.
Below Lough Tor is a walled enclosure known as the Sheep Measure, into which sheep would be driven until it was full, so as to estimate their number. A 'sheep creep', however, is a gap, usually in the bottom of a wall, which allows sheep to pass from field to field, but is too small for cattle or ponies. There is an example in the back wall of the former school garden at Four Winds near Merrivale. Sheep leaps, often on leats, consist of stone platforms, on either bank, to narrow the gap for sheep to jump across the water. Some examples can be seen along the Devonport Leat.
Sheep have been kept on Dartmoor since prehistoric times and the two present native moorland breeds; the white faced and grey faced, may have descended from primitive Iron Age sheep, such as the Soay. These are unusual in having an annual moult, and their wool is collected by combing or plucking called 'rooing'. In most sheep the wool grows continuously and the fleece has to be sheared
Similar native breeds were the main sheep in Britain before the Romans came. They introduced continental breeds which could be crossed with the resident stock to allow selection of types with improved wool quality and other variations.
During the C9th the Vikings introduced black-faced, horned, short-wool sheep into the north and east of England, which eventually produced breeds such as the Scottish (often called Scotch) Blackface, which are now the most numerous sheep on Dartmoor.
After the Norman conquest the Domesday survey of 1086 showed that there were more sheep kept in Britain than all other livestock put together. In recognition of the importance of wool to the economy of Britain in the Middle Ages, King Edward III (1327-1377) commanded that his Chancellor should sit on a woolsack. This is a large bale of wool covered in red cloth, which is still in use in the House of Lords. By the C16th the wool trade was the primary source of tax revenue to the Crown of England. Tavistock's coat of arms, which dates from 1684, also reflects the importance of sheep and wool to the local economy, as it includes a sheep being weighed.
In the late 10th century, the lands with which the new monastery at Tavistock were endowed were well-stocked with sheep. The medieval abbey usually kept about 1000 sheep, primarily for milk production and making cheese, rather than for wool. The monks kept detailed accounts, analysed by Professor H.P.R. Finberg, who provided figures from the 13th to the 16th centuries for the sales of dairy produce and wool.
As well as Tavistock, Okehampton thrived on the medieval wool trade and became famed for its mutton, which had a superior flavour, some said like venison. In the Museum of Dartmoor Life at Okehampton there are examples of granite weights which were used to weigh the fleeces and a hollow ox horn, called a drenching horn, used to administer oral medicines individually to sheep.
Around 1190 the Cistercian Buckfast Abbey received a charter from Richard I, which gave the monks permission to pasture their sheep and cattle on the moor throughout the year. By the C14th Buckfast was one of the wealthiest abbeys in the south-west of England, owning extensive sheep runs on Dartmoor. Buckland Abbey also kept sheep on Dartmoor and by the late C16th it is estimated there were 100,000 grazing on the moor in summer months.
The Whitefaced Dartmoor is thought to be one of England's oldest breeds and is able to withstand wet and cold winters. It is indigenous to Dartmoor, where the breed originated, and remains largely restricted to this area. This sheep has a white head and the face is not woolly. Greyfaces were derived from the white faced and are sometimes called Improved Dartmoor. In the C19th they were crossbred with Nottinghamshire and Leicester longwools to improve the fleece.
The Scottish Blackface sheep is today by far the most common breed to be seen on Dartmoor and are extremely hardy. It is thought to have been introduced by a Mr Lamb of Prince Hall, about 1833 when he was farming there, or alternatively by a Mr Gemmell of Teignhead Farm. The introduction of Scottish mountain sheep to the highest and wildest ground of northern Dartmoor proved that the breed was well adapted to the climate.
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