UK Sheep Farming

Understand why sheep farming in the UK is different to other parts of the world

Sheep have been resident of the UK since Roman times, and became hugely important when wool, meat, milk and skins formed the basis of Medieval trade. 

Today, meat is the main product of sheep, although skins, wool and milk also have their own markets.

The sheep sector employs 34,000 people on farms and a further 111,405 jobs in allied industries. This contributes a huge £291.4m to employment.

The UK sheep industry is set out in a 'stratified system'.

The stratified sheep system is unique to the UK, and is perfectly designed to play on the strengths of different breeds, and the environments and habitats of the country. The UK is made up of a huge range of terrains and landscapes, playing host to approximately 90 different sheep breeds and crosses. Click here to find out more about different sheep breeds in the UK.

The stratified system is divided into three tiers: hill, upland and lowland. Some sheep will stay on the same farm, or at least in the same tier, for their whole lives, while others are moved down the system. This system is crucial in keeping the UK sheep industry productive and efficient, and a collapse of any area would change the entire face of the industry.

Hill

Typical breeds: Welsh Mountain (several types), Swaledale, Scottish Blackface, Cheviots, Rough Fell, Dalesbred, Derbyshire Gritstone, Herdwick.

Traits: Hardy, thick-coated, able-bodied, excellent mothers, adapted to living in the harsh hill conditions.

Purpose: Pure-bred breeding stock. Surplus female lambs and wether lambs are sold as stores to upland/lowland farms to be fattened. Older ewes that have lambed several times are transferred to the milder climates of lower areas and crossed with longwool breeds to produce Mules and half-breds. 

Where to find them: Highlands and islands of Scotland, mountain areas of Wales. Hill areas have harsh climates, short growing seasons, relatively poor quality of soil and long winters.

 

 

Upland

Typical breeds: Bluefaced Leicester, Border Leicester, Teeswater, Wensleydale, Devon & Cornwall Longwool.

Traits: More prolific than hill breeds, and do better on the lower, easier terrain. Mules inherit mothering abilities of hill relatives.

Purpose: Older ewes’ drafter from the hills can continue to breed in the easier conditions, and are mated with longwool upland breeds to produce Mule lambs – ewe lambs transferred to lowland farms for breeding and male lambs reared for meat production, either here in the uplands or on a lowland farm. Ewe lambs sold to the lowlands to be crossed with a lowland/terminal sire breed. Surplus female and all wether lambs sold as stores for fattening in the lowlands.

Where to find them: Areas of Northern England, such as The Pennines and Lake District, and also in the South West, on Dartmoor and Exmoor. Conditions are less harsh than in the hills, but land and soil is still not very productive

Lowland

Typical breeds: Texel, Suffolk. Charollais, Clun Forest, Romney, Oxford/Hampshire/Dorset Down.

Traits: Grow fast, have a heavier frame, more prolific.

Purpose: Mule ewes mated to a lowland terminal sire breed to produce cross-bred lambs. Most lambs are reared for meat production but some may be kept for replacements. The easier terrain and conditions, better grass growth and larger frame inherited from the terminal sire, mean that these lambs grow faster and produce more meat in less time. Slower growing lambs join the store lambs that have arrived from the hill and upland areas to be fattened on root crops over the autumn and winter months. 

Where to find them: Some low lying areas of Wales and England, mostly in central and eastern England where soil is far more productive and therefore mostly arable. Sheep become part of arable rotations, where fields that have grown crops for a number of years are put to grass to help improve the soil.