Blackface Sheep - The Breed

The Mayo Blackface Ewe –A Short History

The Blackface Mountain sheep are believed to have descended from the wild horned Argali sheep that inhabited central Asia in ancient times. Gradually they spread west through Europe and are thought to have been introduced to mainland Britain by the Danes circa 800AD. It evolved from there probably by interbreeding with other native breeds.

In the 17th century the Blackface was known in northern England as the “Linton” or short sheep as opposed to the Cheviot which was known as the long sheep. During the 18th century the blackface sheep swept north replacing the Cheviot in the Scottish Highlands as it was better able to survive the harsh conditions and poorer grazing on the bleak mountains. Their numbers increased rapidly during that century as wool became an important product during the Industrial Revolution and the demand for meat increased in line with the growth of cities in Britain.

It was during the latter half of the 19th century after the Famine that they were introduced to Ireland by the Landlords who owned vast estates in the mountains along the west coast. An English landlord named Captain Houston owned approximately 40,000 acres in West Mayo stretching from Killary Harbour to Clew Bay incorporating Mweelrae Mountain, The Sheffry Mountains and the western end of the Partry Mountains. He imported thousands of Blackface sheep from Scotland through the Killary Harbour during the 1850’s. He is reputed to have boasted of having marked 26,000 sheep at one shearing time.

The blackface sheep of the Mayo /Connemara area today are probably descended from this original importation. It was common at the time for Houston's rams to go missing at tipping time. Several strains of Scotch Blackface have evolved down through the years in Scotland and Northern Ireland there are three types namely Perth, Newton Stewart and Lanark. In Ireland there are the Mayo/Connemara type, Kerry Blackface and the Waterford and Donegal types which are very similar to the Perth strain in Scotland. There has also been a lot of crossing and merging of the types in recent years especially in Scotland where the Newton Stewart and Lanark are almost totally merged.

The Mayo/Connemara Blackface is still a distinct strain having evolved and adapted to conditions in the West over the last century. There has been some new blood introduced from the other strains in the past and more recently Lanark/Newton Stewart type rams have been used.

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