The early history of the Portland sheep is cloaked in the mists of time and as with much from the early periods of British history legends and myths have grown up around this tough yet attractive early breed.
By definition it is not a primitive sheep, as it has too many bones in its tail, but these early downs type animals are likely to be closer to its original ancestors than many of the short-tailed breeds. The production of one strong lamb, at any time of the year, bearing its distinctive red coat which later blends into cream, gives us a good indication of its early origins.
Around 12000 BC as the Ice retreated from our Islands
many animals came to the rich pastures crossing over an
area we now call Doggerland, some of these were small
deer type flocks which developed towards wild sheep.
As the climate warmed around 8500 BC vast forest grew up, filled with many predators, pushing the sheep to rocky outcrops where the woods did not grow so densely. Into this environment the early Neolithic farmers came from more central areas of Europe, likely bringing some of their semi domesticated animals. Archeological remains indicate that small fine boned sheep similar to the Soays of today were the main sheep in this pre-history era.
And then the ice bridge broke and the waters
filled the land, and the British Isles formed.
But this did not prevent early man from crossing
the waters to these fertile shores and
somewhere around 4000 BC evidence shows a
double spiraled horned sheep became part of
the flock, the only similar animal found around
this period was from the Urals area and it is
likely it was bought to our land by earlier settlers
moving across the continent.
Around the late Neolithic / Early Bronze age it appears a Mediterranean long tailed sheep was introduced, and probably contributed to the out of season lambing known in the Portland’s and which they have passed into other Dorset Breeds.
The tan faced, spiraled horned primitive type of sheep was found throughout the South West long before the Romans came, saw and conquered, including the Island of Portland with its barren with a thin soil incapable of providing rich grazing for animals ensuring that the breed remained small, hardy, agile, and not usually producing more than one lamb.
When the Romans arrived, they found there already was a significant local wool trade, upon which they built. Analysis of Roman cloth shows they had developed a very fine material, around 18 Microns, a softness which was not matched again in Britain until recently
The advent of dyeing increased the value of white fleeces resulting in selection of particular sheep. This started to change the appearance of the primitive breeds and under the influence of the Mediterranean flocks this change continued during the Roman occupation, through crossbreeding with imported animals.
This may have been a period in which the Portland was influenced by interaction with other breeds.
The Romans left and the sheep stayed to welcome the Saxons, who developed a system of apportioning land in strips and identifying Common land with strict rules laid down for its use. This method survived right into the 20th century on Portland, the sheep were folded at night to provide manure for the cornfields.
At this time meat production was less important and tithes were paid with wool and cheese from sheep's milk, and the islanders of Portland developed trade with the mainland.
Although Dorset was the first landing site for the invading Vikings the Saxon chiefs held this area of Britain and so the Vikings seem to have little influence on the breed, although trade, between battles, occurred, including sheep. This may explain the common genes between some breeds in Scandinavia and Britain.
William the Conqueror retained the strategically important
manor of Portland for himself and with it the governing laws
of the Manor Court and administration of local affairs as
established by the Saxons. These practices and customs have
survived to the present day, and were jealously guarded by
the local people whose insularity ensured that farming
methods did not change and the sheep flocks continued to be
run on a feral basis. The Doomsday Book records that in 1299
there were nine hundred sheep on Portland.
During the Medieval period trade with outside world expanded and Portland mutton gained its reputation for excellent flavour.
As early as the 13th century there was a Portland Fair held on 5th November where sheep and cattle were sold and stock exchanged. Despite the lack of a bridge, stock was sold to people from the mainland and conveyed across Smallmouth in a ferry.
In the Tudor age one of the legends of the Portlands
grew, As the Spanish Armada set sail they had on board
sheep, possibly to provide fresh meat. As they engaged
the British and the fire ships devastated their fleet the
sheep managed to escape from the pens below the
burning decks and swam through the turmoil of war to
shore, scaled the rocky cliffs and founded a dynasty. Probably just one of those fables.
The Georgians exploded sheep development started with the activities of such farmers as Robert Bakewell, but with Portlanders closed community the sheep on the island felt little influence Portlanders have always chosen to live in a closed community which influenced contact with the outside world’s agricultural practice.
The high-quality meat with its fine texture and excellent flavour was well known at this time, indeed King George III noted the delicacy of its mutton and demanded it be served upon his visits to the region.
The Victorian Sir George Crew Bart visited Portland in 1835 and recorded the nature of the sheep and the conditions under which they were raised, He was so impressed he purchase some additions to his flock at Calke Abbey in Derbyshire.
By 1840 the number of sheep had grown until there were four flocks of 1000 sheep each.
The sheep population on Portland peaked at about this time, but after 1847 the building of a breakwater around Portland harbour by penal labour meant the purchase of vast areas of farming and common land.
During the Modern era Sheep numbers declined, aggravated by commercial pressure for larger carcasses, until the last Portland’s left the Island in 1920 to be sold in Dorchester where the auctioneer had difficulty in getting a bid.
The breed had almost become extinct, and it was only due to the efforts of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust that the remaining animals were traced and recorded in 1974 as a total of 86 breeding ewes, and three major bloodlines:
• Field/ Marsden,
• Stubbs/Clutton and
• Harpur Crewe.
A policy of a combination of line breeding and cyclic
crossing was adopted, and by 1988, fifteen years after
the programme was established, almost half of the
foundation ewes and about two thirds of the
foundation rams were represented in the current crop
The Portland Sheep Breeders Group was established in
1993. It now has about 140 members. Currently the Portlands
are shown as ‘At Risk’ by the Rare Breed Survival Trust,
but with the breeds popularity as a smallholders sheep
growing, and with flocks from Scotland to the
Netherlands the breed is secure to ensure its benefits
are passed to the flocks of the future whilst providing
beauty, soft wool and flavoursome meat today.
For a full History of the Portland Sheep we would refer you to:
‘Portland Sheep - A Breed With History’
by Norman Jones