Along with our Sarplaninacs, we also own a small flock of ARBA (American Romney Breeders Association) registered Romney Marsh Sheep. Living up in the Great Lakes region our weather patterns fluctuate widely. Summers range from prolonged periods of heavy rain and high humidity to hot and dry extended droughts. Winters are often quite cold with a biting lake effect causing temperatures to plummet to -40º at times. Being located in the Great Black Swamp Region of Northwest Ohio our pastures also undergo rather heavy spring flooding. Originally we wanted to acquire sheep for the primary purposes of conservation grazing along with giving our young Sarplaninac pups the critical exposure to livestock necessary to prime them as good future workers. However as we got more into the livestock husbandry end of things we then began experimenting with fiber stock sheep. After initially trying a few other breeds we ultimately ended up with Romneys because of their hardiness in damp weather, their natural resistance to hoof rot, their ease at lambing, their gentle demeanor around dogs, and their fine quality fleece.
Romney Marsh Sheep are a semi long-wool sheep breed which originate from England. With a heritage that goes back nearly 800 years, they are generally regarded as being one of the oldest long-tailed sheep breeds in Europe. They are thought to have become indigenous to the Romney Marsh area of Kent and East Sussex sometime in the 13th Century. The Romney Marsh is a fertile piece of low-lying wetland which lies on the south-east corner of Britain. Most breed historians believe that they originally derive from Europe’s white faced, long-tailed sheep though it has generally been accepted that Leicester blood had been added into the breed by 1800 in an attempt at improving it. They’ve always had a dual purpose usage on the Romney Marshlands by producing both high quality fleece as well as a delicious, mild tasting meat. Their presence and ability to thrive on the cold, rainy, windy pastures of the marsh would have been crucial for the people who lived there and for centuries relied heavily on all of the resources that these sheep provided them with. It has also resulted in an exceptionally hardy breed with black hooves which are resistant to hoof rot, dense fleece which is able to withstand heavy rainfall, and a natural resistance to liver flukes and other internal parasites. Due to all of these traits, by the end of the 19th Century Romney sheep exports from England were finding their way all across the globe.
William Riddell is credited as being the first person to import Romney Sheep into the United States. These early imports began in 1904 and came from stock brought over directly from England. These early Romneys seemed to quickly find a niche in the New England countryside as a valuable wool producer. The New England Romney population thrived and went unchanged for decades being characterized by their short build, efficiency on feed, and possession of a silky fleece which was prized by hand spinners. Later on in the 20th Century Romneys were imported from New Zealand into the US west coast where they were integrated into the existing North American Romney population. The New Zealand derived stock was characterized by taller animals with a coarser, carpet grade fleece. They tended to do better in the show ring than the shorter New England sheep as their long legs and muscular builds received very high marks by judges. Though crosses between types are quite common, the current population of Romney Sheep in North America now tend to fall into two general types: Taller, longer limbed show-grade sheep deriving from the New Zealand imports and the shorter, hardier New England fleece sheep which came from the earlier British imports. Romneys now number in the thousands throughout the US and Canada and the population in England has also rebounded in the last 20 years after an extended period of decline following WWII.
Earlier on in the breed’s history, coloration on Romneys was quite diverse and ranged from solid white and cream fleeces all the way to shades of silver/gray, brown, charcoal and black. Later on in the 20th Century the breed had to compete heavily with mainland European breeds which were being imported into England. Romney breeding began to decline and demand had shifted toward solid white fleeced animals with natural color (NC) sheep being mostly bred out of the remaining population. Starting in the 1960’s however a revived interest began for these other fleece colors and by 1972 natural color Romney Sheep were finally being recognized by the ARBA. Though less commercially valuable than solid white sheep, natural color fleece demand has grown considerably among knitters and weavers and thus natural color Romneys are starting to become relatively common once again.
The fleece of New England derived Romneys generally contains a loose crimp and a long staple. It has the finest fiber diameter of all of the long-wooled breeds with a spin count that ranges from 29-36 microns. Fleece generally weighs from 10-12 lbs. on mature Romneys with a staple length of 4-5 inches. Romney rams and ewes are both naturally polled. Newborn lambs typically weigh 7-10 lbs at birth while adult sizes range from 175-200 lbs for ewes and 200-250 lbs for rams after approximately 18 months of maturation.
When we first got into sheep we had started with Shetlands. We fell in love with their short, cute build as well as the wide variety of fleece colors which could be found within the breed. However they were mostly quite flighty around people and we found out quickly that they were very dominant around dogs choosing to bully them at almost every opportunity that they got. The temperament of the Romney is in stark contrast as they are generally very calm and gentle in nature and flightiness is quite rare in a settled animal. They are normally very friendly around people and can even be trained to come when you call them. The temperament of rams is generally much more docile than other breeds (though this is something which must be maintained through strict breeding practices). Ewes are very protective of their lambs but overall Romneys usually take well to livestock guardian dogs. They do tend to respond poorly to herding dogs as these sheep are much more stubborn and slower in their movements and they don’t always stay together as a flock. This can make it difficult to run Romneys on larger scale operations so they tend to be found primarily on smaller, family-style farms. People who do use herding dogs on them normally require a higher drive, more experienced Border Collie to get the sheep to respond properly.
As mentioned on the “Working Dogs” page within our site, the Coyote is now found in all 49 of the continental United States. Romney Sheep generally don’t flee and panic like many of the other commercial sheep breeds will when confronted with a predator like a stray dog or Coyote. They are also muscular, well built animals which are capable of warding off an attack from a solitary predator. Though in general this tends to serve them well it can also be at the sheep’s downfall as they may choose to stand and hold their ground until long after they’ve had any chance of escape. It is for this reason that we advocate heavily for the presence of at least one, if not two, livestock guardian dogs with every flock. Many Romney breeders have also found llamas to be successful livestock guardian animals although one has to keep in mind that when confronted with a group of Coyotes or dogs a llama itself is also not completely immune to predation and can also quickly fall victim to these sorts of pack hunting animals.
Romney Sheep traditionally originated on very fertile, productive pastures in the Romney Marsh however because of the extreme seasonal weather fluctuations the marshlands undergo, they are also very efficient on feed. Fleece weight and lambing rates are often much higher on improved pastures, however it is important to remember that these sheep were often expected to survive on very little at certain times of the year. Most enthusiasts offer various assortments of grain and hay to supplement their diet, especially in the winter time. Here at Black Swamp Sarplaninacs we pride ourselves on producing a more organic, non-GMO grade of meat as we offer only hay to our sheep when they’re not on pasture. We use a grass/alfalfa mix or 1st cutting alfalfa at the very most with 2nd or 3rd cutting alfalfa generally being considered too rich for the sheep and mostly avoided. Romneys tend to do well with access to a sheep specific mineral block (though one must ensure that it’s free of any copper content) and it may be advisable to go through your county soil and agricultural extension for specifics on which types of minerals may be naturally lacking in your area.
Bloat seems to be a contentious issue in the sheep industry and Romneys are no exception. It is said that bloat is caused by too heavy of legume content in the diet with alfalfa and clover each falling into this plant category. Many commercial supplements and remedies have been developed in order to prevent and treat bloat but it has been our opinion that simply keeping the sheep well fed on fresh grass is the most effective means of preventing it. When sheep are hungry they often seem to go straight for the clover whereas when they’re just casually browsing they will consume a proportionate amount of grass in with it. Our sheep always have access to fresh hay, even when they’re brought in at night, and to date we’ve been fortunate enough to have had few run ins with bloat (a big knock on wood).
We’ve worked very hard to build a high quality sheep flock that we believe epitomizes what Romney Sheep were originally bred for when first brought over from England. When acquiring our breeding stock we chose for animals which were hardy, had high yielding carcasses, and also produced good quality fiber. We prefer ewes and rams which adhere to the original New England Romney Sheep standards as we like the shorter, stockier animals which contain high quality fleece. Around half of our ewes are natural color and we strive to breed for the silver color fleece which has become so coveted by weavers. We try to cull out any stock which we deem to be “excessively vocal” as we don’t want sheep which do nothing more than sit around the pasture bleating all day long unprovoked and we also remove any unusually aggressive and temperamental animals from the breeding flock as well. All of our stock is ARBA registered and all lambs we produce are sold registered and up to date on all vaccinations.
Our pastures really are our pride and joy up here. Our fencing is composed of mesh 16′ long X 50″ high cattle panels secured to treated wood posts and alternating t-posts. It stands up well to the rigors and strain that both itchy sheep and excited 120+ lb. dogs may put on it. It is an expensive fencing method though and many hundreds of hours were put into building it on our farm. Adult Romneys have never been able to get over it and the lambs are normally too big to get through it. Many producers choose to go with rolled mesh fencing or even just 4-5 strands of electrified wire secured to fiberglass poles. Electric is the most cost effective way to go, and perhaps the most predator-proof, but for us wasn’t an option at the time that we put our pastures in. We have reinforced the fence a bit with an invisible fence unit in order to ensure the dogs don’t try to get through it. The insulated wire for the invisible fence is zip tied right to cattle panels and it ensures that the dogs are unable to either jump the fence nor dig underneath it.
It is said that you can graze Romneys 4 to an acre on marginal pastures but up to 8 per acre on optimal sites; hence, it really does pay to manage your grass wisely. Living in the Great Black Swamp Region though our land does experience rather heavy seasonal flooding pulses so a lot of trial and error has gone into the selection of the grass that our flock is grazed on. We started off our first year by frost seeding a commercial sheep pasture mix into our fields with very limited success. Some of the grasses came up but much of it was either drowned out by the water or shaded too heavily by the White Clover and Chicory which were present in the mix. We then back tracked a little bit and replanted much of the pasture with homogenous mixes of Perennial Rye, Timothy Hay, Kentucky Bluegrass, Orchardgrass and a type of tall fescue called “MaxQ.” Out of that second round of seeding, the Perennial Rye, the Orchardgrass, and the MaxQ Fescue were the only ones able to germinate and establish in any sort of abundance amongst the spring/early summer standing water. Our sheep have done very well on the fescue and orchardgrass though and we have nothing but good things to say about each. They do very much like the Perennial Rye but it can be at the detriment of the grass as they will largely overgraze it and not move on to the fescue or orchardgrass until nothing but bare dirt is left. We also have a few exceptionally wet areas where Canary Reed Grass has naturally moved in. Despite what we’ve been told though it has not taken over any significant portions of the pasture and its presence seems to be more than welcomed by the sheep. The lesson here though, avoid pre-mixed commercial sheep pasture seed and don’t introduce clover or chicory until your grass has already been well established. Though the clover is a valuable nitrogen fixator and the chicory is said to aid in parasite control, both can be quite aggressive and take over a new stand very quickly at the detriment of the new grass.
We regularly rotate our animals from one pasture system to the next (on an approximate 14 day grazing cycle) in order to mitigate parasite loads and allow for vegetation regrowth. We’re always trying new seed types and next year will be plowing and sowing in more of the Perennial Rye along with a newer type of pasture grass called HDR Meadow Fescue. It’s supposed to be more water tolerant than other cool season grasses and also lacks the toxic endophytes present in other fescue varieties so it should be interesting to see how it does in our system. We are also getting ready to open up a native warm season pasture which we had seeded in 2015 with Indian Grass, Big Bluestem, Switch Grass, Eastern Gamagrass and some native wildflowers. The idea is to try to graze the warm season pasture more heavily during the heat and dryness of the summer after all of the cool season grasses have gone dormant; it also provides much better habitat for some of the local wildlife (i.e. wild turkeys, quail, songbirds and butterflies). It is yet to be determined though if the sheep will graze any of these North American native grasses or how well they will tolerate the flooding themselves. This spring we also added a mason bee box to this pasture with the intent of helping increase plant pollination within both pastures as well as our garden. We will give regular updates in the future on the long-term success of our ever changing pasture management system as much trial and error is likely to continue.