THE BLACKFACE BREED
There are many different breeds of sheep in Ireland. The most common is the blackface mountain breed on upland farms. They are very hardy and can put up with cold, wind and rain. They are very nimble and roam about looking for grass.
The Blackface Mountain sheep are believed to have descended from the wild horned Argali sheep that inhabited central Asia in ancient times. Gradually they spread west through Europe and are thought to have been introduced to mainland Britain by the Danes circa 800AD. It evolved from there probably by interbreeding with other native breeds.
In the 17th century the Blackface was known in northern England as the “Linton” or short sheep as opposed to the Cheviot which was known as the long sheep. During the 18th century the blackface sheep swept north replacing the Cheviot in the Scottish Highlands as it was better able to survive the harsh conditions and poorer grazing on the bleak mountains. Their numbers increased rapidly during that century as wool became an important product during the Industrial Revolution and the demand for meat increased in line with the growth of cities in Britain.
It was during the latter half of the 19th century after the Famine that they were introduced to Ireland by the Landlords who owned vast estates in the mountains along the west coast. An English landlord named Captain Houston owned approximately 40,000 acres in West Mayo stretching from Killary Harbour to Clew Bay incorporating Mweelrae Mountain, The Sheffry Mountains and the western end of the Partry Mountains. He imported thousands of Blackface sheep from Scotland through the Killary Harbour during the 1850’s. He is reputed to have boasted of having marked 26,000 sheep at one shearing time.
The blackface sheep of the Mayo /Connemara area today are probably descended from this original importation. It was common at the time for Houston's rams to go missing at tipping time. Several strains of Scotch Blackface have evolved down through the years in Scotland and Northern Ireland there are three types namely Perth, Newton Stewart and Lanark. In Ireland there are the Mayo/Connemara type, Kerry Blackface and the Waterford and Donegal types which are very similar to the Perth strain in Scotland. There has also been a lot of crossing and merging of the types in recent years especially in Scotland where the Newton Stewart and Lanark are almost totally merged.
The Mayo/Connemara Blackface is still a distinct strain having evolved and adapted to conditions in the West over the last century. There has been some new blood introduced from the other strains in the past and more recently Lanark/Newton Stewart type rams have been used.
The Scottish Blackface is the most common breed of domestic sheep in the United Kingdom. This tough and adaptable breed is often found in the more exposed locations, such as the Scottish Highlands or roaming on the moors of Dartmoor. The Scottish Blackface, which are the most numerous, are sub-divided into three types.
·The Perth type, a large-framed sheep with a medium to heavy wool, is found mainly in north-east Scotland, south-west England and Ireland. The larger frame produceslambs ideal for long keep on winter forage or indoors, to finish in the spring when hogget prices tendto be on the rise. With hoggets reaching a finishing weight of 40kg plus. A Perth ram can bring size,strength and vigour to a hill flock.
·The Lanark type, which is dominant in much of Scotland and areas of Ireland, is of medium size, with shorter wool than the Perth type. Over the past thirty years, a strong influence of Newton Stewart type has been introduced, the integration of Lanark and Newton Stewart bloodlines, as well as benefiting both milking ability and hardiness, has helped create a more uniform and identifiable breed.
·In the north of England, the large-framed, soft wooled Northumberland Blackface is popular and influential in breeding the North of England
The Mayo Blackface group was established in 2004 by a group of enthusiastic hill sheep farmers. The group is working closely with agencies including Teagasc, Sheep Ireland and Aurivo, and the Mayo Connemara Blackface society, to help develop and improve stock locally that will have long-term benefits for farmers and rural communities.
The farmers set up the group in response mainly to a situation where it was very difficult to source quality breeding sheep in substantial numbers to cater for local breeders, the sister mayo mule and grey face group and other lowland farmers around the country.
The group began with 45 members farming in the hill areas of Tourmakeady , Louisburgh , Newport, Ballycroy and Achill. The first sale had a modest number of 800 sheep sold with premium prices received for better quality lots. The sale has grown in popularity over the last ten years, with quality and numbers growing . Members are very proud of the stock they present and the sale is now recognised as a significant hill breeding sale nationally.
In 2009 the Mayo Connemara blackface ram society decided to hold their annual sale in Aurivo Ballinrobe in conjunction with the mayo blackface sale. This has led to increased cooperation and benefits for both sides.
At the recent 2014 sale over 1800 breeding sheep were sold to customers from all around the country.
The group has evolved steered by a dedicated committee to become one of the biggest producer groups in the area. The membership now totals 240 members, with increasing numbers joining following two successful years selling lambs to Kildare chilling.
Mayo blackface group has led to the increased competition for wool in the western region and will continue to strive to achieve the best returns for its members retaining its independence and expecting high standards from members in terms of producing quality produce.
The group aims are:
1. To work together with the common goal of producing quality breeding stock, both hoggets mature ewes and ewe lambs.
2. To promote the mayo blackface breed as a dam for producing crossbred replacements for lowland farmers to in turn produce lambs for the French market.
3. To organise a breeding sale for prime breeding stock where producers can source top quality stock
4. To work with processors both regionally and nationally to market both light and heavy lambs for group members to achieve maximum returns.
5. To work with the mayo mule and grey face group and the south mayo producer group creating synergies that will achieve more success.
For more information on this group and more;