Meet Leicester Longwools and Other Rare Breeds on Colonial Williamsburg’s “Bits and Bridles” Tour

Colonial Williamsburg’s modern stable and rare breeds program are the subjects of “Bits and Bridles,” a one-hour tour for Colonial Williamsburg hotel guests and annual passholders.

Volunteer Tom Schultz began last Tuesday’s tour by describing how Durham oxen, an early example of what became the Shorthorn breed of cattle, were prized in the 18th century for their gentle nature and their ability to work hard. Canadian Horses, originally sent to the New World by King Louis XIV of France, were also hardworking animals during Colonial days that became a favorite of both Union and Confederate cavalry and artillery in the Civil War. American draft horses were another popular farm animal, especially for plowing. There were even favored breeds of fowl, including Dominiques, the first identified American breed of chickens; Old English Game Cocks; and Nankin Bantams.

Mr. Schultz explained that all of these animals are rare breeds. According to guidelines set by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, breeds are termed rare when they number less than 10,000 animals. In 1986, Colonial Williamsburg began its program to re-introduce some of these rare breeds into the Historic Area.

Schultz shared the story of Robert Bakewell, an 18th-century farmer in Leicestershire, England who is regarded as the father of modern breeding. Recognizing that he could make changes over time to the traits of his livestock through selective breeding, Bakewell improved his hogs, horses, and longhorn cattle. But he was most successful with raising Leicester Longwool sheep.

Naming his first ram “Two Pounder,” Bakewell raised Leicester Longwools that were known for their sturdiness and their heavy fleeces of long, curly and lustrous wool, with staple lengths from 8 to 14 inches. The sheep were exported to mainland Europe, North and South America, Australia and New Zealand. George Washington raised Leicester Longwools at Mount Vernon.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Leicester Longwool gradually became less popular and was replaced by newer breeds of sheep. By the end of the 20th century, there were no Leicester Longwools in North America, and only about 200 breeding ewes remained in the world.

In the 1980s, Colonial Williamsburg acquired a single Leicester Longwool ram lamb from Canada.  A vandal killed the animal in 1988, but subsequent research led to the discovery of a Leicester Longwool flock in Tasmania. In 1990, Colonial Williamsburg imported eight ewes, six lambs, and a ram from that flock. I met a Leicester Longwool ewe and her twin lambs while they were on their lunch break in the Coach and Livestock Barn.

Although still classified as a rare breed by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, Leicester Longwools are enjoying renewed popularity because of their lustrous fleece. Spinners and weavers appreciate its hand and how well it wears and accepts dye colors. The fibers grow more than an inch a month, so twice-yearly shearings keep lengths to a manageable five to six inches per clip. Colonial Williamsburg’s Leicester Longwools will have their next shearing in September.

Horses were the focus of the tour’s visit to the Coach and Livestock Barn. Outside the barn, Mr. Schultz introduced us to Molly, the plump and furry resident mouser cat. He also told us that the first quarterhorse races were held in Williamsburg. An historical marker near the entrance to the barn commemorates quarter path racing in Williamsburg. The marker describes how colonists developed horses that could sprint with remarkable speed over quarter-mile paths. Impromptu quarter path contests in fields developed into organized, subscription, spectator races held on oval tracks. The track in Williamsburg was near the present-day intersection of Lafayette and York Streets. 

Inside the barn, Mr. Schultz used a skeleton of a horse’s head to demonstrate how bits help a carriage driver control his horses. Authentic taxidermy models of horse hoofs and ears helped our guide explain not only how farriers kept horses’ feet sound and well-shod, but also show us how aware horses are of their surroundings. We also took a close look at several of the carriages available for rides throughout the Historic Area, including a handsome green coach made in Vienna, Austria that features a storage area for swords.

Pressed for time to get to the Golden Horseshoe’s Gold Course Clubhouse Grill for lunch, we were treated to a carriage ride back to the Market Square from horses Brigadier and General and their driver, Lee. Before I left Colonial Williamsburg, I bought a skein of Leicester Longwool yarn at the Greenhow Store on Duke of Gloucester Street.

For more information about Leicester Longwools, read “On the Edge: How a Handful of People Have Preserved Some Rare, Valuable Sheep and Their Wools,” an article by Deborah Robson in the November/December 2011 issue of PieceWork. The issue also contains instructions for making a crocheted pillow cover with Leicester Longwool yarn from Row House Farm in the Shenandoah valley of Virginia.  Also, the Summer 2012 issue of Jane Austen Knits includes an article titled “Leicester Sheep in Jane Austen’s England.”

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