The Cotswold sheep, often referred to as the ‘Cotswold Lion’ was introduced to the UK by the Romans. Their wool known as the ‘Golden Fleece’ was an important export. It not only played a major role in the development of many Cotswold towns and villages, but also in the finances of the nation. Sadly times have changed, and they are now classified as a rare breed.
The following detailed History of the Cotswold breed is extracted from the “First Prize Essay by William Scotford Harmer” first published in The Cotswold Sheep Society’s Flock Book in 1982.
Origin and Early History
“…The origin of the Cotswold sheep is a problem on which much interesting matter has been published. Professor John Wilson, writing in the Journal of the R.A.S.E. in 1956, said that “the range of ollite hills running from North-east to South-west, and occupying the Eastern division of Gloucestershire, have given their name to a breed of sheep which is probably one of the oldest recorded breeds in the country. “But the truth more probably is that, to quote Camden, the sheep give the name to the hills upon which they exist – “Cotes” meaning buildings in which they were formally housed, and “Wold” being a wide open country, such as their habitation must in its primitive time have been. Therefore, with more literal accuracy than the phase generally implies, Cotteswold or Cotswold sheep may be said to be “as old as the hills…”
Mr Harmer goes on to discuss the appearance of the “Cotswold like” sheep remains in post Roman Britain and the references to “writings by Tacitus that an extensive clothing trade existed at Cirencester early in the first century of the Christian era.” He also comments on the occurrence of the word “cote” to describe the enclosures used for sheep in the Bible, suggesting that the keeping of domestic sheep came from the east.
“…Throughout Saxon and Norman times there is ample historical evidence that the keeping of sheep and the working up of the wool were carried on to a very large extent in the country around Cirencester, and an idea of the enormous flocks kept on these hills in the 13th century may be formed from the statement in Goding’s ‘History of the Beaverstone’ that, the quantity of sheep, nearly 6,000 kept at Beaverstone is remarkable, while numerous monumental brasses to woolmongers in Cirencester and Northleach churches attest the importance of the wool trade at the dates to which they refer. The immense quantity of wool cultivated in the country during the reign of Edward III, is apparent from the fact that 30,000 sacks of Cotswold wool was an annual quantity granted from the county of Gloucestershire for the King’s household.
About the 14th century, the Florentines imported largely into this country, and in return for their goods ‘they carried away wool and cloth which they were accustomed to travel to Cotteswold to buy up’.
In the 15th century, it appears that both sheep and wool were largely exported, for in 1425 it was enacted by King Henry VI in order to remedy the date of things, ‘that no sheep shall be exported without the King’s license, ‘and there is no record of the King having been asked to grant a licence permitting the exportation of the wool of any other than that of the Cotswold sheep.
In 1437 Don Duarte, King of Portugal, and brother in law of the King of Castile, from which he might easily have obtained the choicest of Spanish wool, made application to Henry VI for the liberty to export sixty sacks of Cotswold wool, in order that he might manufacture certain cloths of gold at Florence for his own use…”
“….Markam, a writer on agricultural affairs in the time of Queen Elizabeth, says that Cotswold sheep were, as they continued in every period of their history, a longwooled and large-boned breed…”
With respect to the breed during the 1890’s when Harmer published his essay he states that:
“…It is possible, both from recorded history and tradition, that the original unimproved Cotswold sheep was a large, flat sided, somewhat leggy animal, with long heavy wool. But with a careful process of improvement and selection, the quality of the breed has been advanced without diminishing its size, and the Cotswold is now probably the largest, and he is certainly the hardiest, of our English breeds. The improvement to which we have referred, doubtless, to a great extent, took the form of a judicious infusion, during the latter part of the last and beginning of the present centuries (late 1700 – early 1800), of the blood from the Leicester breed, for which Mr Bakewell did so much a hundred years ago.
Having always been most entirely in the hands of tenant farmers, who pursue farming as a business and not as a hobby, Cotswold sheep have lacked the advantages which many other breeds have reaped from the support of wealthy patrons, who, regardless of expense, have brought their favourites before the world, and made then fashionable and popular. So for many years the merits of this handsome race were unappreciated, except upon their native hills. But when the desire for agricultural improvement manifested itself in the establishment of the agricultural shows, the excellences of the breed attracted to it general and widespread attention, and the annual sales of the Cotswold ram breeders, which had for some years been established, were largely patronised. The result was that the sheep rapidly dispersed over the British Isles…”
Mr Harmer goes on to talk about the flexibility of the bred and its role in the formation and development of several other breeds. In particular, he discusses the creation of the ‘Cotswold Down’ breed by crossing Cotswold rams with Hampshire Down ewes. This new cross was very successful and soon came to be known, as it is today, as the ‘Oxford Down’.
“…With their animals much improved and gaining ground in public favour by the force of its own merits, the number of breeders of Cotswolds greatly increased, till some forty years ago (circa 1850) it was estimated that in Gloucestershire alone 5,000 rams were sold and let in a season at a total price of little less than £50, 000. Some ten years later the number was put at 4,000 and at that time there was good export trade to America, Australia and the continent of Europe, as well as a brisk demand from all parts of the United Kingdom…”
Mr Harmer then notes the ‘showing history’ of the breed and provides detailed accounts of many of the most famous flock. He notes that by the time he was writing in 1892 “the Cotswolds are now for most part confined to their native Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire hills…”
This has been reproduced from Flock Book 1, 1987, compiled by (and with permission from) Ms E L Henson, who was at that time Secretary of the Society.