Leicester Longwools - Just What is This Breed?
D. Phillip Sponenberg, DVM, Ph.D
Selection is critically important to the future of any breed. Selection means some sheep get to reproduce, and some do not. "Selection" is a nice way of saying "culling," for they are two signs of the same coin. To quote Elaine Shirley, "the job description just got changed to kitchen duty." While not all "not selected" animals need to end up in the kitchen, the idea that they do not reproduce is an important one.
General principles of culling and selection have been reviewed in other articles as well as in some annual meetings. A more general peek under the lid is also appropriate though, and centers on the whole idea of breed definition. Each breed has its own unique definition, and this involves much more than looks. It also involves abilities and adaptations.
The Leicester Longwool fits into a somewhat strange slot among sheep breeds, and failing to understand that can lead to frustration in managing them. While they are "easy keepers," I am not convinced that this is due to efficiency as much as work ethic - they are always eating! Whatever the route they take, they should be easy to keep well-fleshed, and this is an inherent part of their breed identity and function. Only selection can keep this ability at the high level the breed enjoys.
Their "easy keeping" qualities should not lead breeders to assume that they are exquisitely adapted to rough conditions, because they are not! As one breeder succinctly stated, "Leicesters are not Icelandics!" Any of several adapted breeds could have been substituted here for Icelandics, but the point is that Leiecester perform best in good lush grassland conditions. Rough hills and arid landscapes will prove more of a challenge than they can manage.
Critics may pause here and say that I am implying that Leicesters are weak. They are not. They are not and should not be frail, and this is a critical point for selection to occur. They should be well adapted to their decent grazing environment, should use it well, and should use it productively with minimal concern from owners. So, while not rugged in an extreme sense, neither are they frail in any sense.
The goal of the breed was always to transform lush grass into meat and wool. This means they should produce lambs, raise them well, and also produce a wonderfully heavy fleece of their hallmark wool. Only ongoing selection on the part of breeders will keep these factors all in balance, with the end goal of producing sheep that are productive and typical of the breed we all know and appreciate.