The Ryeland, one of the oldest British breeds, is said to have appeared in South West Herefordshire in Norman times and, as the name suggests, was bred on the rye-grass growing land on the Welsh border.
The breed was certainly developed some 800 years ago by the Monks of Leominster and it is reputed that the woolsack of the Lord Chancellor is stuffed with Ryeland wool. Another popular story is that when the Spanish Armada sank off the English coast, some Merino sheep swam to shore and eventually were crossed with the Ryeland breed, hence the heavy fleece.
Ryelands in the 19th century and early 20th became a larger animal, giving a heavy wool clip, but still retained their sound constitution and were popular for their ability to thrive on cold, damp soil and were once described thus: "The Ryeland would endure privation of food better than any other breed" and "The Ryeland deserves a niche in the temple of famine".
The Ryeland's ability to convert grass to meat is undisputed.
The modern Ryeland still excels in wool and meat and the breed characteristics contribute to their ease of management.
The dense fleece covering, including over the face, helps prevent fly strike and the compact, strong feet are noted for their ability to resist foot rot.
As a terminal sire, the Ryeland is an ideal choice for first-time lambers, giving an easy birth to a fast-maturing prime lamb.
The breed is also a popular crossing sire for some of the hill breeds, especially the Welsh hill ewe. Lambs are vigorous with good wool cover and have good growth rate.
The rams produce excellent quality light to medium weight carcasses, either pure or cross, with high percentage of meat to bone and sufficient fat cover for modern tastes.
Further information on the Ryeland breed can be found on the Ryeland Flock Book Society website.