Clun History – Article 2

The History of the Clun Forest Breed – Rosemary Ruddell

The Clun Forest sheep has a very ancient lineage, for it is descended from one of the oldest types of sheep found in England, a distinction it shares with the other Uplands breeds of the Welsh English border, and also with the sheep of the Welsh mountains.

The immediate forbearers of the Clun as we know it today were for many years little more than an obscure local type of sheep. Then, at the turn of this century, the Clun began to spread to other parts of England, especially to the eastern lowlands. As one historian put it, “the Clun began to expand dramatically in numbers.” By mid-century, the Clun Forest sheep was the third most numerous pure breed in Britain and was outnumbered only by the two great mountain breeds ­ the Welsh Mountain and the Scottish Blackface. To understand the forces that led to the development of the Clun Forest sheep, it is helpful to briefly overview the history of the British, or more correctly, the English sheep industry over the last 200 years.

At the end of the 16th century in England, estimates indicate that there were three times as many sheep as there were people. This is not surprising, for since the 13th century, England had grown wealthy on the backs of these small, simple, yet versatile animals. There were, and still are, many different types of sheep found in England, each adapted over many centuries to specific habitats, but they were all bred primarily for wool.


In some areas, large flocks of sheep were milked and provided the basis for a thriving cheese industry, and well into the 20th-century farmers living in some marginal areas continued to milk ewes in order to provide their families with a year’s supply of cheese. Today, in Britain as in North America, there is a revival of interest in sheep’s milk cheese, and there are now some 200 dairy flocks in Britain. Many of these producers choose to use heavy milking English breeds, often the Clun Forest, for they find that these animals are both hardier and simpler to manage than are the more fragile imported dairy breeds.

In contrast, meat production was not historically important. Until the 18th century some 80 percent of England’s population lived in rural areas at little more than subsistence levels. Though the gentry could afford to eat well-fatted four-year-old wethers, the majority of the population ate very little meat, and such sheep’s meat as was available consisted of scraggy mutton taken off aged ewes and wool wethers. The wool breeds had a very poor mutton conformation; they were slow to mature, and most were small. The 18th-century records of Smithfield’s meat market in London show that the average weight of a mature ewe’s carcass was a mere 25 pounds. If mutton production were to become important, these animals would have to change­and change they did.

Stutelambs1The 18th century saw the beginning of a period of rapid change in the English economy. The rural population began moving to the towns and cities; except in marginal areas, the small subsistence farms disappeared, to be replaced by larger commercial-type farms that were capable of producing the surplus of food that was required to feed a growing urban population that now demanded large quantities of meat. By 1800 farmers were finding it more profitable to produce meat than wool.

Thus began the great era of sheep improvement. Through selective inbreeding and more frequently cross breeding, farmers sought to produce animals that had a good mutton conformation, by which is meant that they were well muscled in all the right places. They also wanted animals that would finish quickly at the least cost. It is this period that saw the emergence of most of the British breeds that we know today­including the Clun Forest.

The ability to finish early was of great importance, for up to this time it normally took some four years before an animal reached market weight ­ the English perforce were mutton eaters. As long as wool prices remained high, it paid to feed wool wethers and ewes for four years, but from the middle of the 18th century wool prices had been in decline, and thus farmers were eager to lessen the time it took to finish an animal. It was not until well into the 19th century that there emerged breeds capable of finishing in their first season ­ that is as lambs. Once the consumers were offered this better product they increasingly began to demand it.

It is said of farmers that some ten percent are innovators, some thirty percent are quick followers, and the rest follow in their own good time. From 1800 onwards, innovative farmers all over the country were attempting to improve their flocks, and when they got good results, their example was followed by their neighbours, and over time a new type of local sheep would emerge. Rarely do we know the names of these early farmers or have detailed knowledge of all the breeding decisions that led to the emergence of the new composite breeds.

Showing, as we know it today, developed in the first half of the 19th century and played an essential part in the development of these new breeds. For it was at local shows that the new breed was defined and later validated. The new composite breeds were often unstable and subject to regression to earlier and intermediate types, and breeders began to recognize the need for some form of quality control, and thus to the concept of “breed type” they added “breed purity” which was protected by pedigree, and constantly validated in the show ring. This was a late development, for the first Flock Book, that of the Shropshire, was not to open until 1882. Though many producers today believe that showing has outlived its usefulness, and indeed on occasion has clearly been counterproductive, it has in the past played a vital part in the development of the sheep industry.

Early in this period of innovation there emerged two breeds, both of which were to play a very important role in the development of the modern sheep industry, and directly in the history of the Clun Forest sheep. Around 1740, in the Midlands of England, Robert Bakewell crossed two local long wool breeds, and after some forty years of careful selection there emerged the New Leicester ­ the first true mutton breed. This animal has not survived, for it eventually proved to be both too costly to feed and too fat. However it was the improving breed used on most of the long wool breeds. In addition, its two descendants, the Border Leicester, and Hexham or Blue Faced Leicester, are the sires used in the Stratified Cross-breeding System. This system was first developed in the 1880s and was well established by the 1930s. In this system, mature ewes from various mountain and high hill breeds are brought down to lower pastures and bred to one of the two Leicester breeds; the crossbred female progeny are known variously as Halfbreds, Mules and Greyfaces. These crossbreds were sold, usually as two-year-olds, to the great commercial flocks that were found on the lowlands of eastern England. It is these animals that have always presented the major challenge to the Clun ewe as the preferred breed for use in the commercial flocks of the English lowlands. It is interesting that the two types of sheep favoured by commercial producers, one a crossbred, the other a pure breed, have in common a background of mountain or rough moorland breeding.

Around 1790, John Ellmand began to improve the local sheep of the South Downs of Sussex, apparently without resorting to cross-breeding. By 1800, the Southdown had appeared and was an instant success. It was considered to be the perfect “butcher’s sheep”: medium- sized, with excellent mutton conformation, it did well on both grass and turnips, and above all, it finished early ­ that is, as a two-year-old.

The Southdown increased rapidly in numbers and became one of the premier sheep of the 19th century. but its lasting legacy is that it was the improving breed used to produce all the modern Downs breeds, the Dorset Down, the Hampshire, the Oxford, and the Suffolk, as well as other breeds, the Clun Forest, the Shropshire, and the Improved Ryeland. Their proud owners commissioned many portraits of the early Southdowns, and they show a stocky, short legged animal, with some wool on the top of the head and a clean face of a colour varying from light to dark brown, which differs from the modern mouse- coloured face.

The locality in which the Clun Forest breed was developed, and with which it is now still identified, is part of southwest Shropshire, centred among the towns of Clun, Craven Arms and Knighton. The forbearers of the breed ranged over a wider area extending west to the open moorlands and into the two Welsh counties of Radnorshire and Montgomeryshire, and to the east, extending across the south Shropshire heath-lands as far as the river Severn. In the Clun area, the land rose from east to west from 600 to 1250 feet, and until the middle of the 16th century, this was one of the wildest and most desolate regions in England, for it was an area of conflict between the Welsh and the English. The lower altitudes were covered by several large forests (one of which our breed is named after), interspersed with swampy marshlands, while at the higher altitudes, the forests gave way to equally swampy moorland.

Fortunately, there are extant medieval records which describe the kind of sheep that were general to the entire region. These were a small tan-coloured (by this is meant reddish-brown) animal that foraged through the forests, swamps and open moorlands. Historians believe that these animals are relics of a very ancient type of forest sheep that had once been found all over England, but by this period were found only in the most desolate parts of south west England.

These animals were closely related to the sheep of the Welsh mountains, for they both are relics of the same ancient type. Today there are a number of variants of the Welsh Mountain type, many retaining the tan-coloured face. There must also have been local variants among the moorland sheep, but we do not know much about them. Oral histories suggest that there was a speckled face type found in the Kerry hills area, whilst in the Clun area the local sheep were polled and had dark tan faces and legs, and further east on the heath-lands of Shropshire were found two dark faced types that were horned, known as Longmynd and Cannock Chase. Common sense and circumstantial evidence, and later direct evidence, make it clear that over time there must have been a considerable admixture of mountain and moorland breeding in the western part of the region, but it hardly matters, for all these types were very similar, and all had evolved over the centuries in a harsh environment, in response to the most basic of adaptive pressures ­ survival of the fittest.

Today’s improved breed bears little resemblance to its early 19th-century progenitors, but it is from these animals that it must have inherited so many of the traits that we value so highly: its hardiness and adaptability; the ability to survive on poor forage and prosper on good forage; the strong bond between ewe and lamb; the drive to survive that is shown by the lambs; and the ewe’s capability for heavy milking. This last quality is found in many mountain breeds, for the lamb’s continued survival depends to a large extent on rapid growth during the first two months of life. One final point of interest is that the prominent eyes that are so often seen in the Cluns are also seen in the Welsh mountain sheep, which suggests the continued vitality of those ancient mountain genes.

Early in the 19th century, Southdown rams were introduced into the region that includes both the Clun Forest area and the heathlands to the east, and by 1840 there had emerged a distinctive new type of sheep that was general to the region, and is ancestral to both the Clun Forest and the Shropshire. There are portraits of Shropshires that were painted between 1845 and 1870, and they show a sheep with a woolen topknot and a dark face that is totally clear of wool. A number of observers have noted that these animals appear more like the modern Clun than the modern Shropshire. Following this period, the history of the two breeds diverged, and the type that was to become known as the Shropshire was further improved and vigorously promoted by two farm families who lived in the Severn valley. Historians believe that a third breed may have been introduced, probably the New Leicester, and over time, the Shropshire was subject to very different selection pressures than was the Clun Forest.

The Clun remained an obscure local type for another fifty years, and it would seem that it changed very little over these years ­ the breed type was essentially set around the middle of the last century. Various sources state that both Shropshire and Kerry Hill rams were used by farmers in the Clun area, but as this occurred at a time when the three breeds were still very similar, it seems unlikely that it resulted in any significant change in the breed. Other unrecorded genetic infusions may well have occurred during this period, for this was the age of experiment, but judging from the portraits, we see that the breed changed very little.

In the last few decades of the 19th century, the Clun was gaining recognition as a distinctive type of sheep, and beginning to spread beyond the local area. Clun flocks were found on some mixed dairy farms in Wales and on similar farms on the grasslands of the West Midlands, but the breed’s real opportunity arrived at the turn of the century. In 1880, grain prices collapsed in Britain due to the introduction of cheap imports, while at the same time lamb production was becoming increasingly profitable. As a result large areas of arable land were returned to grass and sheep, especially in the lowland regions of eastern England.

The arable farms did not find it profitable to produce their own replacements, and thus required a steady supply of young ewes that were hardy, prolific, heavy milking, and capable of raising a pair of well-muscled twins off grass. These requirements were met by both the Clun Forest type sheep and the cross-bred ewes produced by the stratified cross-breeding system. As a general rule, the cross-breds were popular in the north and the Clun in the south. (One may well ask how it is that a ewe whose tough, moorland progenitors were almost certainly not prolific had acquired a reputation for prolificacy. The best explanation offered suggests that once there was a profitable market for lamb, the early breeders sold off the large single lambs in the summer and were thus forced to select their replacements from the smaller twins, themselves more likely to produce multiple births.)

To meet this huge demand for commercial breeding stock, Clun numbers began to increase dramatically and the traditional flocks of the Clun valley were transformed: they became “multiplier” flocks. They not only had to increase numbers rapidly, but the sale of large numbers of young ewes was a constant drain on their breeding stock. To compensate they continually drafted in hardy ewes from the upper moorlands, and these were graded up to Clun Forest. Most of these ewes were essentially of the same type, but mountain-type ewes that were both cheap and plentiful would certainly have been included. This practice continued in some flocks until the early 1940s. With the vast numbers of animals involved, it is inevitable that within the breed there is a considerable degree of genetic diversity which can express itself phenotypically, and it is recognized today that there are a number of distinct strains within the breed, but at the same time, the continued infusion of so much high country breeding has ensured that the breed has not lost the virtues of its early moorland progenitors.

In 1925, a group of leading Clun breeders opened the Flock Book, “to secure in the future, absolute purity of lineage and fixity of type.” Gradually, flocks began to close and establish pedigree status and after the hiatus of the Second World War, the Clun entered its Golden Age, a period which extended from the mid-forties to the seventies. It is during this period that the Clun became the third most numerous purebred in Britain. At the annual four-day sales at Craven Arms some 75,000 purebred ewes were sold, and there were other sales centres. Some flocks were very large, and it is claimed that several flocks were selling over a thousand purebred sheep a year. The breeders had a number of markets, for not only did they ship large numbers of ewes to the commercial farms of eastern England, but Clun flocks both pedigreed and commercial were being established on grassland in many parts of the country and also in Scotland and Ireland.

The Clun of this period might be called the “Classic Clun,” and there were many pictures taken of this animal as it was between 1950 and 1970. All have a distinct woolen topknot and a brown face, though all were not so dark as became fashionable in show flocks at a later date. Some rams have wool on their face, especially on the cheeks, and of course, we see this in North America, especially on young rams, but it is generally accepted that clean faces are to be preferred. The faces are not so long as became fashionable at a later date, and they tend to be quite wide across the eyes. The ears are generally small to medium in size, though there are animals with larger ears, and they are always held upright, though many are set at a forty-five degree angle. In recent years, show breeders have selected for close-set, very upright ears, but this is not a general characteristic of the Classic Clun, and perhaps we should remember that it is the Classic Clun that established and sustained the breed’s reputation as a highly productive grassland ewe breed.

It is the Classic Clun which provided the foundation of the breed in North America when Tony Turner imported two rams and thirty-nine ewes in 1970, to be followed by one further ram. Readers may well ask why it is that a breed that was so important in Britain did not arrive in North America until 1970. Suffice to say that between 1914 and 1950 there were virtually no exports from Britain, for this period saw two World Wars, the Depression, and a number of outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease in Britain. When exports were allowed, the quarantine regulations had become so formidable and expensive that only the most determined breeder would attempt to import sheep to north America.

Clun breeders owe a considerable debt to Tony, who coming to Canada in the 1960s, had the experience and foresight to recognize that the Clun Forest sheep was very well adapted for use on the grassland farms of North America. Right from the beginning there developed a nucleus of enthusiastic Clun breeders, but in general, aceptance of the breed was slow. Perhaps this was in part due to poor promotion (including the lack of university sponsorship), but this was not a period when there was great interest in grassland farming. Shepherds were advised to increase productivity by introducing new and more complex production systems. All too often these systems involved increased labour, running, and capital costs which the returns could not justify. This became increasingly evident in the slump of the 1980s, and interest in low cost operations based on grass and forage began to increase, and with this, so did interest in Clun Forest sheep. This last decade has seen a significant increase in the numbers of Clun breeders scattered right across the continent, and we trust that it will continue.

Following the arrival of Tony’s flock, Angus Rouse of Nova Scotia undertook two further importations, and the arrival of these sheep has done much to secure the breed in North America. Last year imported semen was successfully used by a breeder in the United States, and there are plans for further imports of semen.

While all these developments were taking place in North America, the situation was changing in Britain. There has been a steady decline in overall sheep numbers since 1914, and this accelerated in the 1970s as Britain, including the agricultural sector, experienced a period of serious economic decline. The sheep industry was particularly hard hit because of large imports of cheap New Zealand lamb. After close to a hundred years, there now occurred a reversal of the events of 1880. In part because of the distribution of subsidies, grain production became much more profitable than was lamb production. Wherever possible, grass lands were returned to arable or other types of farming, and with this, the Clun breeders lost a substantial portion of their traditional markets. Breeding ewes were a glut on the market and prices dropped abysmally. Clun breeders fought back by crossing their ewes with Leicesters to produce the English Half bred, which is reputed to be the most prolific sheep in Britain, but this alone could not stem the loss. Clun numbers began to decline, and today many of the great pedigreed flocks have disappeared, as their owners have been forced to turn to other forms of farming. There are, of course, many Clun flocks remaining in Britain, some pedigreed and others commercial, and though the numbers have declined substantially, the breed still rests on firm foundations.

The reputation of this most versatile pure breed rested on its ability to function as a superb commercial ewe breed on grassland farms, but it has also been used as a crossing breed, and already is a foundation sheep for two new breeds: the Colbred and the Cambridge. Recently, the Clun has been developing a reputation as a dairy sheep. It has been said of the Clun breed that it was bred in the 19th century to 20th-century specifications. Perhaps we should change this and suggest that the breed was bred in the 19th century, improved in the 20th century for what will be 21st-century North American specifications.

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