The Rare Breeds Survival Trust has launched a new five year conservation programme to reverse the decline of the Longwool sheep breeds native to the UK.

In the latest RBST Watchlist, published in April 2020, six of the nine native UK Longwool sheep breeds were classified as ‘vulnerable’ or ‘at risk’.

While Greyface Dartmoors and Border Leicesters have seen positive growth in their numbers, other breeds such as Lincoln Longwool and Leicester Longwool have declined in number. There were just 251 Lincoln Longwool breeding females registered in 2019.

RBST chief executive Christopher Price said: “Longwool sheep are striking animals thanks to features such as long fleeces and pricked ears. Their grazing encourages biodiversity on farms and their tasty meat and natural wool offer good commercial opportunities for their keepers. These breeds made a huge contribution to rural communities when the UK wool trade was booming and it would be devastating if they were to disappear from our landscapes now.

“In general, the Longwool breeds have seen a steady decline and some of the breeds now have very low numbers. But it is not too late to secure their future, which is why we have launched our new Love a Longwool campaign.”

RBST president Jimmy Doherty said: “The Longwool breeds are iconic, with their huge shaggy fleeces and long fringes appealing to livestock enthusiasts and city dwellers alike.”

As part of the new conservation programme, RBST will work with breed societies to increase the diversity within each breed, making the Longwools more resilient. The programme will work to limit inbreeding in each of the Longwool breeds through bespoke breeding programmes and employ cutting-edge conservation techniques and technology to safeguard each of the breeds for the next generations. The Love a Longwool campaign will also improve the breeds’ chances of survival by promoting their uses for fibre, meat and conservation grazing, which encourages biodiversity and the regeneration of habitats.

The nine Longwool sheep breeds are Border Leicester, Cotswold, Devon & Cornwall Longwool, Greyface Dartmoor, Leicester Longwool, Lincoln Longwool, Teeswater, Wensleydale and Whiteface Dartmoor.

Flora Searson and Lewis Steer keep more than 600 Greyface Dartmoor, Whiteface Dartmoor and Devon and Cornwall Longwool sheep in Devon. Their business, The Dartmoor Shepherd, sells interior items and accessories made using longwool sheepskins as well as grass-fed hogget. Flora Searson says: “Through our three Longwool breeds, we have found our niche in the industry. They know better than anyone else how to make a living from the landscape, converting grass into meat and wool. Our customers appreciate eating locally sourced, high welfare tasty meat and our sheepskins have a quality you just can’t find with modern breeds. We get so much enjoyment from rearing these beautiful animals and playing a part in their conservation for future generations.”