Crossbreeding Sheep

‘Cross-breeding sheep gives you hairy fleeces.’ So someone told me long ago, but my response is ‘only if you use hairy sheep.’ Many modern breeds are a result of crossbreeding in the past. For example, the Bluefaced Leicester in England, the Corriedales bred in New Zealand to be a hardier version of a Merino, and Bowmonts for the same reason in Scotland. They are Merino x Shetland.

My sheep breeding started with a motley collection at a time when no one I knew had coloured sheep, which was what I wanted. I had learnt to spin using a fleece given by a neighbouring farmer. The resulting jumper was horrible, unwearable, and even worse it came from a tup with a strong smell which wouldn’t wash out. Well, we live and learn.

A friend spotted a black sheep at an auction one day and passed it on to me. Bertha was the foundation of my flock and of unknown breeding. She proceeded to produce twins and triplets alternately for the next 6 years and reared all without allowing any human help. This sheep breeding lark was so easy!
My first tup was an Icelandic in a rich mahogany shade. By then I had found a moorit Shetland, a chocolatey colour. Between them they created a black ram lamb who spent a long life producing many daughters, some from commercial type ewes of various breeds. As white is a dominant gene, most of their offspring were white but carried colour genes so the next generation was often coloured.

With so many lovely natural colours available from sheep, I had no interest in dyeing and continued searching for ewes, anything but white. This meant looking amongst the old, now rare, breeds which could add interesting genetics to my flock. Also, it was obvious to me from experience that they were often better at looking after their lambs without my help and the lambs were more vigorous than those from the commercial ewes. Plus, more brain and character.

Not staying with one breed meant there was no Breed Society to please and left me free to add anything to the mix which might improve the qualities of my flock.

My perfect sheep has a ‘fine’ wool fleece, not white, with length and lustre. She is a medium size and carries a mix of genes so that her lambs can be different from her. She always has twins easily and has plenty of milk for them without losing too much bodyweight herself. She has good feet, is friendly, calm, and intelligent. Shetlands come close to this but are small.

Many of my sheep are sheared by me by hand. I catch them in the field, put a halter on and tie them up, and shear them standing. A slow process, but my ideal sheep will quietly chew her cud and let me get on with the job. Many are like this.

Breeds that have added to the mix over the years are Shetland, Ryeland, Wensleydale, Gotland, Icelandic, Corriedale, Merino, Coopworth, Bowmont, Blue Faced Leicester, Portland, Cotswold, and Lincoln Longwool.

Most have added good things, some a few undesired things, and some have just not fitted in well with the conditions my flock lives in. It has all been interesting experience, and I’m still hoping for perfection.


Lesley Wickham has worked with fibre since she learnt to knit age 5. As the 3rd generation working in textiles, it is in her blood. Using a knitting machine allows her to create many different designs. Animals are her other main interest, so keeping sheep and developing a fibre flock meant she could work with her own wool. Improving the environment on her farm and selling locally are major interests. Find more about Lesley’s flock on Instagram at @lesleywickham1.