The wool of the Ryeland has always been of very high quality and at one time most of the fleece used in the production of west of England broadcloth was from Ryeland sheep and known as “Leominster Ore” (or “Lemster Ore”). Records show that the monks of Dore Abbey ran a flock of 3000 Ryelands and were responsible for weighing and conveying the clip to Hereford for collection prior to shipment overseas. Most of it was sent to Flanders, highly important in the wool trade at this time. Some also went to Italy fetching the highest price in Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Ryeland wool became the measure by which other wool was assessed.
The fleeces weigh between 2¼-3kg with a staple length of 8-10cm. Due to it’s springy, open nature the fleece can resist felting so more of a challenge when this finish is actually desired.
The Ryeland is a compact breed, adaptable to most lowland conditions and easily meeting the requirements of the modern wool industry. The breed is of medium size with ewes weighing approximately 54kg and rams 82kg. Both sexes are extremely docile.
Ryeland sheep sometimes produce coloured lambs. The fleece of these Coloured Ryelands range from a silver through many shades of grey and brown to almost black. These may be a whole colour, patched or spotty. Apart from the colour, the fleeces display the same soft, springy characteristics as the Ryeland.
Ryeland wool has been famous for more than six centuries, since the time when the monks of Leominster bred sheep in the succulent rye-growing areas of south Herefordshire.
Having originated some eight hundred years ago, by the early part of the twentieth century there was little interest in pure bred Ryelands from commercial farmers. In 1903 the Ryeland Flock Book Society was founded, partly in response to this situation. Volume 1 of the flock book comprised 14 flocks, ranging in size from 14 to 280 ewes and listed 180 registered rams. Their numbers increased and by the 1920s there were some 80 registered flocks. However by the end of the Second World War there had been a significant decline and in 1952 there were only 40 flocks remaining. In 1974 , only 980 registered breeding ewes remained which caused it to be listed as rare by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. Thanks to the work of the RBST, the Ryeland Flock Book Society and a dedicated band of breeders the numbers are now much healthier and the breed has been re-classified as a minority breed.
The Coloured Ryeland is promoted by it’s own group, The Coloured Ryeland Committee, within the Ryeland Flock Book Society.
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