History of the Lleyn


By Tom Rees-Roberts (Flock 43)

A well known old phrase is, that 'poor writing is better than the best memory', and in my case it will be a poor memory that will be trying to recollect the history of the Lleyn sheep, and the formation of the Society, as very few records are available of the initial years. 

The roots of the Lleyn are in Ireland, and to trace the early beginnings of the breed, the clock has to be turned back to around 1750. The pioneer breeder of cattle and sheep Robert Bakewell was in his prime and had exported some of his Dishley Leicester rams to Ireland to improve indigenous Irish sheep, resulting in the formation of the breed known as Roscommon, with the Roscommon Breed Society being amalgamated with the Galway Society in 1921 to be known from then on as the Galway breed.  Bakewell's aim was to line-breed the large coarse Leicester into a smaller ewe with a more marketable carcass; from records there is no mentioning of him putting any emphasis on improving prolificness, milking qualities and density of wool.  Most probably, taking into account Bakewell's breeding principles, the Lleyn must have derived its prolificness, milking and wool qualities from the indigenous Irish ewe, but as far as points of breed are concerned they resemble that of the Dishley Leicester, then noted as having white fine heads, long thin ears, good tapering neck and lengthy body, well sprung ribs and body depth carried on legs of a fine flat bone.  Around the 1750's Bakewell exported some of his rams to Holland to improve the indigenous breed there; the resulting progeny later became known as the Texel, which has a number of breed points similar to the Lleyn today.

This was probably the reason so many breeders of Texels bought Lleyn as multipliers through grading up to increase the size of their flocks, against purchasing expensive imported ewes from the continent. Such was the intention of the late Mr Charles Wright when he bought his first batch of Lleyn ewes and ewe lambs.

Probably it was around the beginning of the 19th Century that the first Roscommon ewes arrived in Wales on the Lleyn Peninsula. To those of you who are not so familiar with North Wales and the County of Gwynedd, may I point out, that Lleyn is the Peninsula that protrudes into Cardigan Bay, with Bardsey Island at its tip and Anglesey to the North

It is from this peninsula that the sheep derived their name.  The importers were two well known Lleyn landowners, namely the Late Lloyd Edwards of Nanhoron which had close family connections with Ireland, and his close friend Lord Mostyn of Cefn Amlwch.  Before the importation, most probably the indigenous breed on the Peninsula were the Rhiw breed and Welsh Mountain. The Landlords between them owned most of the Peninsula in those days, and most probably they sold rams to their tenants to cross on the Welsh ewes as multipliers to form a large number of the new breed in a short period of time. Sailing ships were sailing often to Ireland from Portdinllaen harbour, so it was very easy to ship sheep over from Ireland. It was debatable at one time whether Portdininllaen or Holyhead was the best port to be developed for crossing to Ireland, the decision went in favour of Holyhead and that is why the railway never went further than Pwllheli. Before World War 2 the Lleyn was the fifth largest breed in Wales, only outnumbered by the Welsh Mountain, Kerry Hill, Clun and Radnor sheep.

Since the importation of the Roscommon until the appearance of the tractor, nothing much had changed in the method of farming, the traditional Norfolk rotation was adhered to, and nothing much more than increasing the numbers happened to the Lleyn. Most probably the most forward farmers would be trying to improve their Lleyn when the Nefyn show was established in the 1890's, from which there are verbal records of where the best flocks were to be found, and these breeders were regular winners at the show. Classes for Lleyn were to be had in the early 30's at the RWAS, so the Society was wrong.

The late Mr Moses Griffith mentioned that farms that lambed early to catch the Easter fat lamb trade, instead of drying the ewes up, they milked them for cheese production, and some churned butter that was sold as butter grease for machinery. These ewes milked well on the flush of early summer grass, were dried off in June, such procedure eliminated the risk of mastitis with early spring weaning. Tethering collars and yolks could be found on some farms about fifty years ago, the long legs of the Lleyn was a great help when milked by hand.After the Easter trade, local lamb consumption would decrease until the holiday season started mid-summer. The majority of the male lambs were castrated, and sold as wethers to dealers that would send them to Anglesey and along the Welsh coast to Denbigh and Flint, fattened over winter off swedes, they would be sold the following spring to Hotels at Llandudno and other coastal resorts, and were greatly appreciated for their flavour.  Dealers would buy the wethers off the farms and the sellers would walk them to a central collecting point, where a hired drover would drive them to Pwllheli or Chwilog stations, where they were sorted out according to different marks, for various destinations. In those days, livestock trucks were hooked behind the passengers train when only a few trucks were involved.

Mr I E Roberts, Plas-y-Bryn, Chwilog, can recall as a young man in the 30's being hired as a wool grader by wool merchant Hugheston Roberts, Caernarfon. His job was to travel on the wool collecting lorry to the various farms and collecting points on the Peninsula, and sort the good Lleyn fleeces. It was easily done he said, by dropping a good Lleyn fleece, it hits the ground quietly and bounces slightly because of the crinkle in the staple of wool - the more the crinkle, the more the bounce - this compared to inferior fleeces hitting the ground with a slight thud, and no bounce. He came across many a fleece weighing 8-10 lbs, the best fleeces realising 3-4 pence per pound, his commission was ¬ľ penny per pound, which was good money in those days. Mr Roberts also quoted seeing records that Lleyn ewes around 1890 were worth around ten shillings (50p).

World War 2 broke out in 1939, and it was the war years that put the first nail in the coffin of the Lleyn. The compulsory ploughing of a third to a quarter of all ploughable land on every farm; meant that there was less acreage for grazing, the first livestock to feel the pinch were the sheep, as they were the cinderella of farming compared to cattle and working horses. The slogan of the day was produce more food, and produce it quickly. With the Southdown providing a good crossing ram to produce an early maturing lamb with plenty of fat, they were used extensively across Lleyn flocks. For the first time producers knew what they would get for their lamb weekly in advance, as all meat was bought and paid for by the Ministry of Food. If the Southdown was popular on the Lleyn peninsula, the Wiltshire and Suffolk were gaining ground in Anglesey. Another factor helping to diminish the Lleyn, was that farmers wanted to keep the same number of ewes that they kept prior to the introduction of the ploughing quota. The only way was to purchase the small Welsh Mountain ewe, which could be stocked at twice the density of the Lleyn and was cheaper to buy, changing hands at £2-£3 compared to Lleyn for £5-£7, and the Southdown was ideal for crossing with the Welsh ewe.

Coinciding with the declaration of war, the farmer owned creamery of South Caernarfon was established in 1938 probably, the only one of its kind probably in the country owned by producers. By 1939 farmers were giving up churning their own butter and feeding the skin and buttermilk to calves and pig.  Sending their milk daily to the creamery with a regular monthly cheque was far safer than facing the market at Pwllheli and Caernarfon on market days with butter. Some farmers went completely out of sheep and turned to milk producing and started winter letting for Welsh Mountain lambs at about £1-£2 per head for the winter, and farm rents were assessed then at what was the value of the grazing over winter. The guaranteed weekly price from the Ministry of Food enabled farmers to clear the crossbred lambs off their land much earlier in the season than when they kept the wethers until the autumn.

By the late 50's the writing was on the wall that the days of the Lleyn were numbered with only a handful of pure bred breeders left. The peninsula had already seen another old indigenous breed of the area going into extinction in 1958, this was called the Rhiw breed which was slightly smaller than the Lleyn and was not tailed, with a brownish to speckled face and legs, this breed was greatly favoured on poorer land before the war and was as prolific as the Lleyn and an excellent milker.

When the mid 60's arrived the Lleyn had a major problem. With only seven pure breeders left, and about 500 ewes, inbreeding was inevitable as no new blood was available anywhere. There were other flocks that were managing to keep their flocks at about 50-70% pure Lleyn. Size was diminishing rapidly and misformed lambs were being born.

The late Mr John Hughes, Ty Canol, Pencaerau, decided to purchase a Leicester Long Wool ram in 1965, and this ram saved the day for the Lleyn for a few years, as it produced lovely ewes with better conformation than the Lleyn but all other characteristics were retained. The progeny of this ram, a 50/50 cross was used by the other breeders with the desired effects on their flocks.

Mr Moses Griffith during the late 60's was a freelance Agricultural Advisor, working throughout the UK and on the continent, a renowned breeder of Welsh Black Cattle and Welsh Cobs and Ponies, he was quite adamant that steps had to be taken to safeguard the future of the Lleyn breed. On the 28th October 1970, Mr Griffith, Mr Keith Ellis, the County Livestock Officer, and Mr H E Roberts the Chief Advisory County Officer for Caernarfonshire, called a meeting to take place at the Tower Hotel, Pwllheli, requesting the attendance of all those interested in the future of the Lleyn breed. A total of 16-18 people attended this meeting; including representatives from NAAS and MLC. Mr Keith Ellis explained that scientists were taking interest in prolific breeds of sheep, and that Prof. J B Owen, then of Cambridge University was one of the leading pioneers in the research and experimental breeding. At the time Prof. Owen was developing the Hybrid Cambridge ewe, being a native of Gwynedd he knew well about the merits of the Lleyn and visited farms to purchase the most prolific ewes available, for his gene bank to produce the Cambridge. The popular Llanwenog and Clun breeds were also purchased from Wales to originate this new breed. This new breed development was considered to be a pointer in the right direction, for if the Lleyn could be saved from extinction, there could be a future for the breed and its breeders in years to come.

During 1970 Mr and Mrs C E Sullivan had taken over a hundred acres of land and 150 Lleyn sheep at Plas Bodferin, Aberdaron. They were very impressed with the flock, but they also faced the inbreeding problem. To try and overcome the problem, Mr Keith Ellis suggested purchasing a hybrid Colbred ram, to sprinkle some new blood into the breed, but the results were slightly disappointing.

The first field day for the Lleyn was at Plas Bodferin in August 1970, and in May 1971 another day was organised to celebrate the establishment of the flockbook. Mr Keith Ellis took 9 shearling ewes to the NAAS stand at the Royal Welsh Show in 1970. This created quite a bit of interest, as a number of people had never heard about the breed. Around the same time Mr Gwilym Hughes, Tan-y-Bryn, Abersoch, who owned one of the largest and best flock of Lleyns, had a programme on the breed on Farming on Sunday, and I believe that this was the first major breakthrough to put the Lleyn back on the map.

At the first meeting held at Pwllheli, it was decided:
To form the Lleyn Sheep Society.
1) To establish a Registered Flock Book of Lleyn Sheep.
2) To ask MLC to record flocks of Lleyn on a voluntary basis.
3) To form a committee, consisting of the twelve members present, which really was the whole society at the time.

The late Mr T J Williams, Tan Lan, Tudweiliog was elected Chariman, Mr Moses Griffith as a temporary secretary, and T Rees Roberts (author) as treasurer. Within a year Mr T J Williams retired, and Mr Gwilym Williams, Ty Hen, was elected chairman; also Mr Moses Griffith decided that he could not travel from Anglesey to the meeting, and T Rees Roberts took over as secretary and Mr Gwilym Hughes, Tan-y-Bryn, Abersoch became treasurer. The first committee was called soon after the formation of the Society, and as we had no funds, the first meeting was held at NAAS office at Pwllheli, with the two district field officers present, Mr W F Green and Mr Meilir Jones. Both were of great assistance to the Society during the initial years. Before long the Ministry informed us that we could not use their office for meeting, and since funds were low, we decided to hold meetings at members' homes more or less until Mr Ifor Roberts became secretary. Unfortunately, no official records were kept of the first year, but it was decided to have an Annual Sale during August 1971, and to approach Mr Morgan Evan & Co if they would conduct the sale. They gladly accepted to support us, but as the committee could not envisage an entry much over a hundred ewes and ewe lambs, and only a few rams, it was decided to have the sale in conjunction with the weekly sale, as there would be a large attendance there. Anglesey farmers were familiar with Lleyn, as they were the main buyers at the three annual sales that used to be held at Sarn for many years, but sales had dwindled to just a trickle of sheep present by the 60's, bringing the sheep to Anglesey might rekindle interest in the old buyers. Mr Morgan Evans very generously agreed to donate the commission of the sale to the funds of the Society the first year; and in future years a penny per pound was donated to the Society. Top price for shearling ewes that day was £12.50, which really was a good price comparing it with Welsh Halfbreds selling at £7 the same day. Over a hundred females were forward but there were far too many ram lambs - except for a few, they were changing hands for less than slaughter fatstock prices, with dealers buying them for a quick profit. Prices at the 1972 and 1973 sales were topped at £20 for shearling ewes, no drastic change in prices until 1976, when shearlings sold to £33, but 1977 saw prices double, and ewes topping £70. This was the year when the tide turned and demand far exceeded supply. Ram prices were a disaster in 1972 as well, a number of the males forward were from recorded flocks and the benefit of acquiring recorded rams was not reflected in the prices. A number of these rams went for crossing, which was defeating the object of producing high index rams to improve the breed, especially in the non-recorded flocks.

During the first year, as there were a number of flocks on the Peninsula with 50% Lleyns, a grading up register was opened, so that by using recorded rams these flocks would become pedigree in four generations. A panel of three was appointed to undertake the inspection work, Mr G Roberts, Sam Farm; Mr John Hughes, Pencaerau; and Mr J Hughes, Cruga Bach. However the grading register was closed in a couple of years, as it was realised the other flocks with increasing new members were multiplying very fast, and cancelling the grading up register also produced more uniform stock. The main headache of the Society was getting members to appreciate the value of recording, and to purchase the MLC rams at realistic prices. Some recording members were getting dissatisfied with no returns on the extra work with recording, and there were times when a few of us wondered if the Society would survive. Mr Brynmor Morgan, MLC, Mr Vernon Davies and Mr Brian Jones, both MLC fieldsmen, were giving the Society all the support they could, and the annual fee was £25 for recording and tags.

Finally a decision was taken to have an open day on the secretary's farm for inspection of the flock, also all MLC members to bring two or three of the best rams or ram lambs that they had for sale to Glasfryn Fawr, where they would be offered for sale to members of the Society. This field day was prior to the entry date for stock at Gaerwen, hoping that the best recorded rams would remain within the Society, as it was vital if the Society was to succeed. It was a great success; all the rams forward were sold. Each member had to negotiate their own selling at the best price they could achieve. It was not all honey as some breeders had bargained for better prices than others, with a few breeders having to pay more for similar rams to those that they had sold. However the same system was maintained for the following year, only that an auctioneer from Morgan Evans & Co. came to sell the rams and this method together with the resulting prices pleased the majority. I believe the prices were form £50-£60, which represented an increase on the previous year. The following year the system was abandoned, as no breeder volunteered to have an open day and sale on their farm; but the object of the exercise had been achieved and members were becoming more anxious in coming forward to buy the best rams. By the mid 70's we had abandoned a sale in conjunction with the weekly store sale and there were 300-400 forward at our own sale on the last Thursday in August. We were still struggling to maintain the ram price, I believe it was 1977 when a very good ram lamb was knocked down at £30, but Suffolk non-recorded rams were doing over £100 the previous day at Llangefni market. After all the hard work as secretary I was very, very dissatisfied with this and as my ram lamb was coming for sale second, I told Mr Maldwyn Williams I wanted £100 and nothing less. He gave me a doubtful look, but in the end he got the £100. He thanked me afterwards for nearly all the MLC rams were knocked down at £80 - £100, and a non-recorded lamb from the late Mt J Griffith, Tudweiliog, claimed a price of £115. This sale also had the ewe prices more than doubled too. This was the year buyers were starting to appreciate the merits of the Lleyn. Complaints were received annually from the buyers in the 70's that there was a lot of variation in the ewes and ram - pens of ewes were unmatched as members did not take enough pride in presenting their stock to their best advantage. The committee decided it was time to have inspection of the stock forward on the morning of the sale, with undesirable stock rejected and withdrawn from the sale.

The late Mr George Dyke volunteered to be a fieldsman, and also to attend all the major shows manned a stand. As stock increased he was assisted at the sales by Mr Cyril Humphries, who was manager of the Haulfryn Breeding Centre. To overcome the problems of the early years when too many rams were presented at the sales, a quota system was introduced in the late 70's, with 1 ram per 5 ewes entered, 2 per 25 ewes, and 1 per 75ewes or over. This system, although not favoured by all breeders, without a doubt stabilised the ram problem. By the end of 1976, the Society was expanding rapidly, and with pressure from my business as well, I felt I could not do justice to both the Society and the business, so I put my resignation in. Miss Karen Widdecombe, a Lleyn breeder at the time, took the secretarial job over, but due to unforeseen circumstances she resigned before the end of her first year. The late Mr Ifor Roberts volunteered as secretary, a job he did for 5 years with great dedication and thoroughness, when due to ill health he had to retire. His successor was Mrs Gwenda Roberts who has given years of valuable service to the Society as well as her husband Mr J E Roberts who became treasurer after Mr Gwilym Hughes, who in all the years he served on the committee, never missed attending a single meeting.

By 1982 the membership had risen to 150, and the breed (classed as a rare breed in 1960), was classed as a minority breed, with even that status gone long out of date by the end of the century.

Turning back to the early years again, the turnover of the Society was a mere £35 in the first year and around £60 the following year. Some of the smaller flocks were having problems tattooing their lambs as they had no tattooing sets, a decision was taken to purchase a tattooing set and Mr J E Roberts and Mr Brian Jones, MLC fieldsman at the time, volunteered to tattoo all lambs. Within two years flocks were spreading outside the area, so the system came to an end. From then on all members became responsible for tattooing their own stock, according to Society rules.

By 1974, the Society had over 20 members, with 3000 sheep, so it was essential to have a rethink of the Society rules, as the first initial breeders were still the committee members.
A new set of rules were drawn out and mentioning just a few:
The working committee is to consist of 9 members, 3 to retire yearly, but will be eligible for re-election at the Annual General Meeting.
This committee will have the power to co-opt.
A quorum of 5 members.
Membership fee of £2 per annum; the year of the Society to run from February 1st to January 31st.Very soon rule 2 was used, as the Society members on the whole were elderly; and it was decided to adopt three young farmers that had interest in the breed on to the committee. One of those is Mr Wynne Davies who is still with us today and has become one of the most prominent breeders of the Society.

Getting more publicity for the Society was inevitable by 1975, and it was decided to take a stand at the RWAS. As the Lleyn were gaining popularity on the grounds of its prolificness, milking and mothering qualities, to demonstrate these points it was decided to take three ewes rearing triplets on to the NSA stand. Members were to decide if they had ewes of the standard required to bring them to the secretary's farm the previous week for inspection. To simplify matters since the secretary had volunteered to transport the stock and attend to the stand for the week, it was thought that it would be easier for him to take three of his own ewes to the show. It was also necessary to have a brochure out in a hurry with a photo of two of the ewes on the cover, so as to have some literature on the stand. Although I had all the essential reservation of pens and booking forms, one of the stewards insisted that no pens had been allocated for us at NSA, and told me to return home. After a breakdown on the way, it was not the best time of the day to have that news. Finally he agreed to pen them in the show sheep shed, in some empty pens amongst the Border Leicesters. Although not he ideal spot is was better than taking them home. After a bad start it was a good week, with having to ration the brochures only to interested customers by the last day. On the second day three MLC supergraders came to the stand and were very impressed with seeing the lambs, and they offered to grade them. They passed eight as excellent, and the ninth would just make the grade, and that was without any hand feed at all. The graders must have passed the word around and it was impossible to leave the stand even for a cup of tea; with interest shown in ewes and lambs. The Royal Show was the new venue for 1976, together with the late My Gwyn Williams, Sheep Manager of the University of Bangor. This again proved a great success, this time we were on the stand of the Breeds from Wales sponsored by WAOS.

By now the Late Mr C O Wright and Mr Patrick Evans had established flocks and were great ambassadors of the Lleyn over the border. Sheep '78 and Sheep '80 were attended with stands. Sheep '80 at Malvern was the day, when Mr Gwyn Willians, Mr Ifor Roberts and myself manned the stand of a large pen of excellent ewes with twins supplied by Mr C O Wright, we had such a busy day none of us had a chance to leave the stand from 10am until 7pm. The aftermath of the day was reaped at the sale. But too high a price, did sometimes make buyers shy to come forward the following year. This happened in the early '80s when some breeders went home with hundreds of pounds less money than the previous year, for the same number of stock.

During 1976 Lleyn were exported to Ireland to improve the Galway. Dr J P Hanarhan, at An Foras, Taluntais, Belcare, bought 13 ewes and 8 rams. Although the Lleyn was a descendant of the Galway, the Galway had lost a great deal of their prolificness ,milking abilities, and were not very consistent breeders as ewe lambs. Mr Moses Griffith once quoted that the breeding policy in Ireland and in Wales were completely different; Ireland had gone for size by choosing large rams from singles, nature gradually developed a ewe that only produced enough milk to rear a single lamb.

Whereas the system in Wales was to breed rams from twins and triplets. Mr Moses Griffith always insisted that always using rams from twins, a 200% lambing would decline in time. It was also noticed that ewes rearing twins and triplets always developed larger udders than those rearing singles. If noticed many Lleyn ewes have 4 teats, and more often than not these are the most prolific ewes although the other two teats are of no value. Has nature interfered here perhaps?

For his trial Dr Hanrahan was only interested in buying MLC recorded rams, with three generations of triplets on the sire side and in the dams side. The females also had to have the same breeding index, plus having produced themselves triplets for three consecutive years. I believe he paid £100 each for the ewes and £150 for the rams. The first generation of Lleyn x Galway increased the lambing percentage by nearly 50%, which paved the way for more rams being exported the following year. The results that came back from Ireland proved without doubt that the Lleyn has an incredible ability to improve performance of other breeds. The fate of the Galway is a pointer to breeders of the 21st Century, to keep as close as possible to past principles of breeding, and think twice before idolising size, and in doing so sacrificing the most valuable inherited genes of the breed. Haulfryn Lleyn Group Breeding Scheme was launched in 1977 by Prof J B Owen of Bangor University (Agricultural Dept.). Such groups had been established in New Zealand a decade earlier. The object of such groups was to have a quicker generation turnover than was possible for a breeder on his own, and the problem of inbreeding diminished by computer matching of breeding stock. Briefly, the group consisted of 12 MLC members, each giving 5 ewes on loan to the group for two years, to form a nucleus of 60. The ewes had to be the highest recorded in the flock. The members would benefit in 2 years, by receiving a shearling ram that had been tested for breed improvements of its progeny, when used as a ram lamb. If the progeny of a ram lamb dropped in performance below a zero line, that ram lamb would be slaughtered. MLC members would expect this improvement of performance to be transferred to their flocks and follow suit the to more MLC members flocks when rams of Haulfryn genes would eventually be on the market.

Worth mentioning, around the 1980's Mr Ifor Roberts had an order for 15 ram lambs to be delivered to the Shetland Islands, but it was the end of November. It was a mammoth job to get 15 rams so late in the year, but he managed, finding transport was even more difficult, eventually getting them delivered by a sort of relay.

The years '79-'80 saw enquiries from the USA, New Zealand, Australia, France, Spain and Ireland. Quarantine regulations hampered any exports to some countries, but France, Spain and Ireland made purchases. Mentioning Spain the old saying is that the quality of the wool of Lleyns was improved by the Merino from Spain, which would be quite possible as sailing ships traded between Spain and Lleyn, with sailors carrying live sheep with them for fresh meat; and probably if any Merinos had not been slaughtered on the voyage they would be swapped with any fat sheep available on the Peninsula. It is known Merinos were exported to Australia from Spain.

There are not many pure breeds of sheep in the world today,  the Soay is one, a breed grazing the plains on India and Romanov are the known ones although there maybe others.  The Lleyn definitely has had a few sprinckles of other breeds in its blood over the years, but it has not done much harm to it.

After coming to the end of memory lane, may I repeat what I quoted in 1982 and what was said by a great man, "Never was so much owed, by so many, to so few". We owe a great deal to those who kept the breed going during the post war years; so that breeders of the future can enjoy breeding such a unique breed for years to come. A breed that could easily have become a relic of the past.

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