By Suzan Shearin, Tennessee – Originating in the Romney Marshes of England, they were called, appropriately, Romney Marsh sheep. If you watch public television perhaps you’ve seen Romney sheep, which frequent the All Things Great and Small series.
Very hardy, this sheep breed is an easy keeper. Having a swampy origin, they are more resistant to sheep foot rot and liver flukes than most breeds. They are able to withstand rain and snow because their dense fleeces are resistant to the part down the middle. This part in other breeds leaves the back exposed and makes them susceptible to pneumonia. Rams average 250 lbs., ewes average 175-200 lbs. Fleece weight varies according to genetics and feed but an average fleece might weigh 10-12lbs.
The commercial disadvantage is that Romney sheep grow more slowly then what are commonly called “meat sheep breeds.” However, commercial breeders frequently use Romney sheep or Romney cross ewes because of their good fleece weight and exceptional mothering ability.
Their meat is exceptionally mild flavored, and this quality is passed on to cross-bred offspring. Anyone who says they don’t like the flavor of lamb hasn’t tried Romney lamb. It’s milder than pork. One English gentleman remarked to me that he just couldn’t get good lamb in this country. He was accustomed to Romney.
The Romney fleece is a story in itself. The English Romney fleece was used for clothing production and so had a soft, silky feel. Many were exported to New Zealand, and some found their way to the New England States.
The New Zealanders selectively bred for a tall sheep with carpet grade wool. Still beautiful wool, it had to be much coarser to withstand wear. The flocks in the New England area seemed to maintain the old English short legs and silky fleece.
The New Zealand bloodlines found their way to our West Coast. Once on the show circuit, you can guess who won. These bloodlines have now made their way across the U.S.
Before you purchase Romney sheep, decide which type you’d like to have. If you intend to show, the New Zealand bloodlines are for you. If you are a spinner, will you knot or crochet that yarn, or weave it? Although there are exceptions, the New Zealand is usually better for weaving because of its coarseness.
The New England bloodlines, becoming a shorter sheep, require somewhat less feed than the larger New Zealand. Because the New England fleece is so nice to spin, many breeders maintain two separate flocks, a show flock and a spinning flock.
Being a relatively small person (5’4”) I’d like to say that from my point of view, the smaller sheep are easier to handle. One breeder, Gloria Bellairs of Michigan, brought deserved attention to very small Romney sheep by calling them Mini-Romneys and promoting them to women spinners.
Romneys come in an assortment of colors: very white, cream, or a variety of blue greys, charcoals, very light greys, very black, and even an occasional brown.
But their most attractive quality is their docile personality. The perfect homestead sheep because of their manageability, they can be exceptionally friendly. Imagine my surprise on visiting my first Romney flock to see 80 sheep come running just because someone called them! They are true “people sheep.” Owners of other sheep breeds cannot imagine that my three rams love children or that they are not a problem to worm by myself.
Then they eat out of a prospective customer’s hand, the deal is made.
For further information: Suzan Shearin, Piney Notch Farm, Rt. 1 Box 389, Bolivar TN 38000; American Romney Breeders Assn., John N. Landers, Secy., 19515 N.E. Weslinn Dr., Corvallis OR 97333.
Originally published in the March/April 1995 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal.