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B-H-Cheviot-art - 2/27/03


"The Brecknock Hill Cheviot - A Shepherds Investigation" by Blacksheep.


NOTE: See also these files: The-Sheep-art, livestock-msg, p-animals-bib, lamb-mutton-msg, wool-clean-msg, wool-hist-msg, felting-msg, spinning-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



The Brecknock Hill Cheviot -  

A Shepherds Investigation

by Blacksheep


       Much discussion concerning authentic medieval wool types has come about due to the increased interest in fiber arts and fabric production of that period.   Outside of difficult to find textile archeology publications, usually only available through European sources, and the vaguely documented comments written in sheep breed association publications, little has been written that will help the re-creationist shepherd choose a modern sheep breed or breed type that will have both the aesthetic value as well as wool type and dual-purpose characteristics of their ancestors.  This paper is intended to help the recreationist evaluate the value of the Cheviot breeds, especially that of the Brecknock Hill Cheviot in regard to the fiber needs, aesthetic values  and shepherding abilities of the recreationist.


      The Icelandic varieties which include the Shetland, the Manx Lohgtan, and the Soay, can certainly be classified as sheep that are as close to “period” as we have today because of the isolation of those breeds within the Scottish Isles and the Hebrides. These sheep were brought by the Viking settlers as early as the 900's and there has been little, if no introduction of new blood since that time. Nevertheless, there have been sheep on the European mainland for as far back as man has recorded his life in words or drawings. These sheep, descendents of the French Mouflon, have differing characteristics from the Icelandic varieties in both wool types and body conformation.  ”One cannot properly speak of ‘breeds’ in Britain until the late middle ages, but some broad distinctions can be made. By the end of the Roman period what we technically call shortwool, longwool and medium-wool fleeces are attested...” (Wild, p15). The selection of sheep for wool grade is also mentioned (Pliney, 348).


       So how are those, who not only want to produce woolens of reproduction quality but also want the “look” of a Medieval flock to decorate their pasture, to choose a modern breed that suits their needs. The textile re-creationist/shepherd needs to consider at least three criteria after choosing a modern breed with origins within the geographical area of interest.


1. Will this sheep breed produce wool within the acceptable grade range for my textile reproduction?

2. Will this sheep have the size and general frame of the sheep pictured from my time period?                                                                                        

3. Do these sheep have the hardiness and flocking characteristics of a Medieval type?


     Even through much study and research, the answers to these questions will many times be subjective.   I have chosen the border region between Scotland and England as my geographical area of study. Within this area lie the Cheviot Hills. We have little actual documentation for sheep production in this area before the time of Phillip the Second of Spain. The Border Cheviot Sheep Society states,” From the time of Bannockburn, or earlier, to that of the Union, there is no reliable information further than that sheep were in 1372 a small, but very hardy race over large tracts of the Cheviot Hills.” Much later the sheep of this area were said by tradition to have “come out of the sea”.  Low asserts as a fact that one of Phillip’s ships was wrecked off the shore of England.  The sheep, brought along as a source of fresh meat, swam ashore and migrated to the Cheviot Hills (Low, p56) From the cross between the local sheep, who probably resembled the Welsh Mountain Sheep, and these Spanish fine-wools, the foundation for the three Cheviot breeds is thought to have formed.


      The wool type and grade acceptability question can only be answered by a thorough study of extant textiles from that time period.   It has been found that wool as fine as that of the modern Merino was indeed available during the Medieval period. The work of Dr. Michael Ryder in microscopically examining and documenting fleece characteristics has allowed many conclusions to be made about not only fiber samples but also the sheep that produced the wool. This is important because sheep from Spain are generally considered the predecessors of the modern Merino.  The old wool grading system was set up on the “blood count” system. The fineness of the wool was supposed to be related to the amount of Merino “blood” in the sheep producing the wool. The modern Cheviot breeds produce a “blood count” of three-eights to one-quarter wool. The wool grade we know has been consistent since 1750, just out of period, and seems to have been close to the same before that time.


       The question of proper period size and frame is a rather subjective one.  The best sources of information come from archaeological evidence. The Ancient Monuments Laboratory Environmental Studies documented the change in animals from late medieval to the post-medieval times.


       “Study of animal bones from the city of London has shed light on interesting developments in the agrarian economy between the late medieval and the early post-medieval times. Measurements of sheep and cattle bones from well dated early sixteenth-century and seventeenth-century deposits show that these animals underwent a size increase at that time, probably reflecting early livestock improvement....”. (EH ls )


        A fourteenth-century manuscript, in the care of the Trustees if the British Museum, show women milking sheep.   This, as in most of the pictures portraying sheep of this period show a small sheep, no more than knee high having high-set prick ears. A few medieval pictures show colored or black sheep. Of the three existing Cheviot breeds, the Border Cheviot, the North Country Cheviot, and the Brecknock Hill or Southern Cheviot, the Brecknock Hill seems to be more of the typical Medieval size. The Brecknock also are bred not to discourage the gene for natural color. The rams also have horns which is consistent with most medieval art portrayals and the lambs of this breed dress out a high percentage carcass at a light weight.


        The last, but certainly not the least important consideration in choosing a breed for re-creationist purposes, deals with the hardiness and flocking instincts of the proposed breed.  Shepherds and shearers know that sheep breeds, just like other breeds of animals, have certain personality, hardiness and production characteristics inherited from one generation to another. These characteristics are what we refer to as the adaptability of a breed. Breeds that come from sheep developed through intensive husbandry practices or those living in a temperate climate would not necessarily be able to survive in other more harsh situations (SiD, brd-13). The sheep that developed in the Cheviot Hills did so under many adverse conditions.  The region offers little shelter and at times little sustenance for those animals living there. This allowed only the hardiest individuals to survive and breed. Today the Cheviot breeds are known for their ability to survive and even thrive where other breeds cannot exist. (SiD,brd-7) They are very resistant to parasites and foot-rot, both major problems of ewe flocks around the world. One of the drawbacks of the Cheviot breeds also seems to be linked to their survivalist nature; they have alert, somewhat nervous, and independent dispositions.  They also are wary of strangers but over time become very bonded to the shepherd, especially if raised from lambs. These sheep have a strong flight instinct and can be more of a challenge in handling than other breeds.


     In conclusion, one must be careful to realize that any improvement in sheep is never lost (SiD, brd2). It would be impossible to “breed back” to a specific type of animal known in any historic period. Any modern sheep that has not been isolated since the period in question can only reproduce the fleece quality and outward characteristics of a period sheep type. Those considering raising a period type sheep breed need to look at several factors concerning the suitability of not only the fleece but also the hardiness and personality factors.  The Brecknock Hill Cheviot seems to exhibit more of the characteristics of the period Cheviot type sheep. They are considered a miniature variety  which is consistent with the size of sheep known in period. They have been bred to exhibit the less modern genetic types such as natural color and horns on rams. They also produce a good quality fleece with a comparable spinning count, though most certainly more dense than their predecessors, and they are extremely hardy and lamb without assistance.




Low, David, Domestic Animals of Great Britian. London, 1845


Pliney the Elder,_Natural History: A Selection._ Trans. John F. Healey. London:Penguin, 1991


Ryder,M.L. and Thea Gabra-Saunders, “the Application of Microscopy to Textile History”.  Textile History, 16 (2), 1985


SiD, Sheep Industry Development Program, _Sheep Production Handbook_. Englewood, Colorado, 1988


Wild, John P., _Textiles in Archaeology_. Aylesbury: Shire Publications, 1988

English Heritage, Ancient Monuments Laboratory Enviromental Studies.  Swindon, England, 1999  


                                               Period  Illustrations


“The Good Shepherd” 5th century, Mausoleum of Galla Placidia


“Archbishop of Paris Blessing Sellers at Trade Fair” 14th century, Bibliotheque Nationale Paris


“David the Psalmist” 9th century, Bibliotheque Nationale Paris


“Milking Sheep” 14th century, English manuscript, Trustees of the British Museum



The author has been a shepherd for over 10 years and a shearer for most of that time. She doesn't raise either of these breeds but does raise cross-breeds that conform to the images of the sheep in the British Isles and The Netherlands during the 15-1600's. She has raised one of the Cheviot breeds and shears a friend's flock each year.



Copyright 2002 by Susan C. Childers, 3145 Jackson Pssg, Bloomington Springs TN 38545. <blacksheep at multipro.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org