Origin & Characteristics of the Breed
by James Wood, Mt Kisco, New York Taken from the US Hampshire Down Flock Record Book ~ 1890.
The ridge lands lying south of London are called the Southdowns and the sheep upon them were named from the hills upon which they fed. Reared upon the soil that furnished scanty herbage, they were small in size but compact in form and were noted for the excellence of their flesh. Their home was in Sussex. As the chalk lands extended westward into Hampshire, Berkshire and Wiltshire, the soil becomes deeper and more fertile, affording better pasturage and heavier cultivated crops. As a result of this the sheep upon these lands were larger, coarser and stronger than the Southdowns. They had for their western neighbors the horned sheep of Dorset and Somerset shires. Through centuries of neighborhood existence the sheep along the border lines of these territories very naturally merged together, so that a well-defined division was impossible. We therefore find in the earliest accounts of the sheep of the Hampshire district that those in the eastern and northern sections were more compact and symmetrical in form, with finer wool than were those in the western portion, where curving horns and white ears and faces were not uncommon. These horns, called ‘snigs’ were unknown in the eastern flocks, where the faces and ears were more uniformly black. Squarey states, in his ‘West Country Down Sheep’, that those differences existed through the period from 1815 to 1835. Gradually it became apparent that each of these types had its peculiar value - the smaller, along with its symmetry of form, had superior fattening qualities, while the larger were the more prolific, and had greater hardihood of constitution. When the improvement in agriculture, already mentioned, came, there was a great inclosure of the common lands, where flocks of the parish had roamed at will and had fed upon the inferior grasses usually found upon such tracts, and they were brought under cultivation and made to produce useful crops. This change made necessary a change in the manner of keeping the flocks, and farmers soon saw that to obtain the best profits under a more artificial system of feeding they must give more attention to the breeding of their sheep than they had before done. They now required animals that would thrive upon the open, exposed down pastures, and when put upon the newly introduced root crops would stand close folding, and would take on a high quality of flesh in proper portion to the food consumed. Intelligent observation showed them that where the blood of the Southdowns had long been merged with their neighbors, the ‘Knots’ of Berkshire and Wiltshire, the flocks were best adapted to the ends desired.
While these animals had much of the symmetry, closeness of fleece, and aptitude to fatten of the Southdowns, they surpassed them in early maturity, constitutional vigor and freedom from disease, as well as in prolificness. There were thus clearly indicated the lines upon which the desired improvement must be made. Improved Southdown blood was introduced in such degree as would answer their purpose without endangering the valuable qualities possessed by the original stock. This improvement was carried on by the farmers themselves and extended over the contiguous counties of Hampshire, Wiltshire and Berkshire, and their selections were made with great intelligence. As was quite natural, different sections had somewhat different ideas, and thus for a time bred to types that lacked entire uniformity, but it was not long before it was pretty clearly demonstrated which were the most desired.
In Wiltshire more use was made of Southdown blood than in Hampshire, and when the changed conditions of agriculture favoured the quick production of heavy carcass, the Wiltshire farmers found their flocks deficient in vigor of constitution and early maturity, as compared with those of their neighbors, and they wisely resorted to the use of Hampshire rams to restore the valuable qualities they had lost. We find many statements of the attention that was given to the proper balancing of the different strains. Wilkinson, in ‘The Farming of Hampshire’, said: ‘The hardworking qualities, the hardy constitution and the superior size of the one has been combined with the smaller limbs, shorter legs, broader backs, rounder barrel, more compact form, increased flesh and kindred qualities of the other.’
While, as has been said, there was a general movement in this improvement among the great body of the farmers themselves, there were necessarily leaders among them, as there always are leaders in every advancement among men. Foremost among these was Mr Humphrey, of Oak Ash, near Newbury. Among later leaders Mr Rawlence, of Bulbridge, near Wilton, and Mr Morrison, of Fonthill, have been conspicuous. To the fact that the farmers themselves have made these improvements, rather than a few wealthy breeders, is owing the further fact that there is now greater uniformity in the flocks of the whole Hampshire region than exists among the flocks of any other Down breed. This was strongly impressed upon the writer after having made an extended examination of the districts occupied by the various English breeds. While this is apparent as the flocks are examined upon the farms, it is strikingly so when great numbers are collected at the sale fairs in the different districts. Among 33,000 Hampshires examined in one day at the Ilsley fair in Berkshire, while of course some flocks were better than others, there were none that were not clearly of the Hampshire type, and all were of remarkable excellence.
It is evident that the improvement made was largely upon Southdown lines. The blood was already so closely related that the course taken cannot properly be called a cross. It is undoubtedly true, as stated by Youatt, that “on the south coast and the adjacent counties the sheep seem to have had one common origin with the Southdowns.” Robert Smith, in the Royal Agricultural Society’s prize essay of 1847, said: “The Southdown is a breed of animals distinct from every other race. They are classed under the head of the Sussex, Hampshire and Norfolk-downs.” The admixtures resulting from centuries of co-existence still further unified the blood. The course taken was therefore more the mingling of different strains of kindred blood than the crossing of different breeds.
Let us now examine the authorities to ascertain whether any blood foreign to the district was used in the production of the improved Hampshire-Downs.
Sir Joseph Banks, who was president of the Royal Society of London for upwards of forty years, more than a century ago mentioned the sheep of this district as of a character we have indicated; Charles Henry Hunt, in his “Practical Treatise”, published in 1809, described the sheep of Wiltshire and those about Basingstoke in Hampshire, in connection with experiments in crossing various breeds of British sheep with Merinos, and spoke of no admixture of other English blood. Wm. Youatt, in his “Sheep,” in 1835, said: “The black faced sheep of Hampshire are a cross between the old black faced Berkshire and the pure Southdown. The modern Berkshire owes his best qualities to the same source; and the Wiltshire is become but a variety of the Southdown; still, however, they retain an extra degree of size, bone and fleece, to any other, and are easily distinguished by those characteristics. Breeders who prefer a strong sheep consider this variety better than any other for enduring hardship and for general purposes.” The same writer, in the Royal Agricultural Society’s journal, in 1858, said: “The Hampshire sheep are clearly descended from an original hardy race peculiar to the country. Their strength of constitution and size have been retained and are characteristic of the animal.”
John Wilson, Professor of Agriculture in the University of Edinburgh, in his report on British sheep published in 1855, in speaking of Hampshires, said: “This rapidly increasing breed of sheep appears to be the result of a cross between the pure Southdown and the old horned sheep of Hampshire and Wiltshire, by which the hard working, though fine quality of the former is combined with the superior size and constitution of the latter. The breed was commenced at the early part of the present century, and by a system of judicious crossing now possesses the leading characteristics of the two parent breeds.”
James Rawlence, in 1858, wrote: “About the beginning of the present century the sheep breeders of Hampshire began to bestir themselves and enterprising farmers procured rams from Sussex of the Southdown breed. Finding the experiment successful it was repeated again and again, care being taken to select the largest, coarsest and blackest faced rams, which it was thought would suit the coarse sheep with which they had to amalgamate.”
William Humphrey writing in 1858, said: “In forming my flock I purchased the best Hampshire Down ewes I could meet with, using the best rams I could get of the same kind.” He then described how he purchased Southdown rams from the noted Jonas Webb and used them with advantage upon his flock.
In Wilkinson’s, “The Farming of Hampshire,” published in 1861, it is said: “The Hampshire -Downs are the glory of the county as respects live stock. The peculiar points of excellence in the present race will best appear by a sketch of the two (the Hants and Sussex) from which it is derived.”
John Coleman, Professor of Agriculture in the Royal Agricultural College, at Cirencester, in his work on Southdowns, stated that the Hampshires were produced by mingling that blood with the original stock and Squarey, in his “West Country Down Sheep,” said: “This breed undoubtedly dates its origin from the crossing of the old Wiltshire horned and Berkshire Knot sheep with the Southdowns, which were introduced into Wiltshire and Hampshire early in the present century.” Mr Morton, long the editor of the “Agricultural Gazette”; Mr Coleman, editor of “The Field”, and Mr MacDonald, editor of the “Mark Lane Express,” have repeatedly made similar statements.
The object in making these citations is to show how unanimous the authorities are that no blood from outside the chalk district was used in the production of the Hampshire breed. A thorough examination of all the literature available has discovered but one mention of the possible use of any other blood. It is stated that one John Twynam used a Cotswold ram with his Hampshire flock. W C Spooner, in his work on “Cross-Breeding,” states that “it was found, however, no easy task to perpetuate such a breed after the first cross – the defects of the one parent or the other would appear and re-appear in the second and third generation.” It was conjectured that rams from Mr Twynam’s flock were used elsewhere and thus may have influenced the breed. Even if they were so used it would seem impossible for so few rams to materially influence the hundreds of thousands of sheep throughout the counties of Berks, Knots (sic) and Wilts. The evidence of any such use of them is of no weight in view of the united statements of all recognized authorities that only Southdown blood was used. In addition to the authorities before mentioned, the writer has conversed upon the subject of the origin of the Hampshires with a great number of the best informed farmers of the district, and not one of them ever mentioned the use at any time of any foreign blood but all were emphatic in their statements that only chalk blood was used.
This matter is of importance because the remarkable prepotency of the Hampshires, which is everywhere recognized, can be accounted for only upon the fact of the distinctly local origin of the breed.
By a wise system of breeding and by skilful management the Hampshire Down has been brought to his present state of perfection. He now illustrates what breeders can accomplish in preserving vigor of constitution and general hardihood, and in adding to them the desirable qualities of early maturity, disposition to lay on flesh with the fat and lean properly intermingled, and symmetry of form, with a most useful and valuable fleece of wool. His head is rather large with a Roman face, neck long and usually well set on, shoulders sloping, brisket deep with abundant room for the vital organs, back straight with a good spring of rib going around the barrel, loin broad, quarters long and broad, hams round and heavy, legs bony and strong, and feet large and open, with a tough sole and crust. The face and legs are the blackest of any of the Down breeds. Gray faces are avoided. The wool is of medium length and strong fibre. It is used for making cheviots, tweeds and such business cloths, and commands the top prices. Flocks of breeding ewes average about seven pounds to the fleece. Mature rams weigh 300 pounds and ewes something over 200.
We will now consider the peculiar advantages claimed for the Hampshire Down. Before all others we must place constitutional vigor. We have stated that the improvement of the breed was carried on by great numbers of rent-paying farmers, and not by a few wealthy breeders. The record of the great shows prove that the Hampshires have had few aristocratic admirers. For the purpose of illustrating and not for comparison, it may be stated that among Sussex farmers the belief is general that while such persons as Jonas Webb and Lords Walshingham have brought their flocks of Southdowns to perfection of beauty and form, their pampering treatment has impaired their vigor of constitution so that animals taken from their flocks can be maintained in their excellence only by great effort, while their produce invariably deteriorates in quality. The same principle has been forcibly illustrated in the Leicester.
Prof. Tanner, in his “Influence of Climate and Hereditary Character upon Sheep,” (1869) made these statements: “A constitution is strong when the functions of the animal system can be discharged in a healthy manner under trying variations of food and climate. A constitution is sound when the animal grows and thrives under the variations commonly found in a state of nature. A constitution becomes delicate when, through the intervention of man, and by a diminution of exposure, certain tendencies are fostered at the sacrifice of vital energies, so that the animal becomes specially subject of disease, and particularly so if restored to its original state of nature.”
The rearing of Hampshires has always been under such natural conditions of exposure and food that their constitutions are remarkably “sound” and “strong”, and in no sense “delicate”. Therefore it is that they are singularly free from disease and maintain their health and vigor as do few other animals in heat or cold, in drought or storm, in short feed or in plenty, and whether closely confined or allowed freest range. Associated with this constitutional vigor is prolificness. The writer knows flocks of ewes which average, year after year, over 175 per cent of lambs. As a result of this vigor the young are remarkably strong at birth, and are quickly upon their feet and ready for business. The ewes are excellent mothers and immense milkers, having udders like small cows. Ewes breed to a great age and then fatten well. Based upon their vigor is the claim that a Hampshire ram will serve more ewes than a ram of any other breed, except the mountain breed.
It is claimed that the Hampshires are less liable to foot rot than are any other breeds. The chalk rock of their native districts is full of nodules of flint, and sharp flint flakes everywhere upon the surface. These cut the feet of the animals continually. Nature arms herself against this by making the soles of the feet tough and strong. Generations of such exposure have produced this natural result.
We would next mention the rapid growth, early development and excellent fattening qualities of Hampshire lambs. These are so well known that they are continually referred to by miscellaneous writers for illustration and comparison. English show yards tell us what can be done with the best care and highest feeding. In describing the sheep at a recent Royal Agricultural Society Show, the “London Live Stock Journal” said: “In the sheep department the coveted distinction of Champion was won by a trio of magnificent ten months old Hampshire Lamb: a victory which will do much to accelerate the growing popularity of the eminently valuable and practical breed of sheep. There can be no question that this breed is coming to the front as no other breed is at the present juncture.” The “London Times” said: “These really marvellous Hampshire Down wether lambs, at about ten months old, have the growth, appearance, back rump and legs of adult sheep, their live weight being 214 pounds per lamb, representing a good way over 30 pounds per quarter of meat.” Mr Morton, the late editor of the “Agricultural Gazette”, wrote in an article headed, “The Coming Sheep”: “There is no race in England, or in the world, which can vie with it in the production of large sized lambs. Shropshire lambs are simply ’nowhere’ to them. Let any unprejudiced person attend the ram sale, in July, near Salisbury, and, if he has never before seen a Hampshire lamb, he will be astonished. Then he will see lambs which present you with a pound weight per quarter from the day they were born.”
This rapid growth of Hampshire lambs is simply owing to the fact that with their constitutional vigor they are able to eat, digest and assimilate a large amount of food. No such results can be accomplished with any animal without liberal feeding. With such feeding it seems to be well established that a Hampshire lamb is worth more for the butcher at any given age than is a lamb of any other breed.
Another point of great excellence in the Hampshire is the quality of its flesh. It is scarcely distinguishable from the Southdown. The fat is advantageously distributed through the lean so as to result in a minimum of waste. Masses of fat upon the surface of a carcass, or of tallow about the kidneys, are most undesirable. Each of the Down breeds has its peculiar excellencies, but for the combination of hardiness of constitution, freedom from disease, ability to withstand grief, whether of exposure or shortness of feed, general “useful” qualities, excellence of flesh, value of fleece, strength and vigor of lambs and their quick development and prepotency when crossed upon other breeds or common stock, it may well be doubted whether a superior to the Hampshires can anywhere be found. They have been brought to the United States in considerable numbers and have proved admirably suited to our American conditions.