The UK is historically a centre for sheep breeding; the woollen trade in the thirteenth century put Britain on the map as the best place to buy wool, both the raw material and cloth. Because the value of fleece was so high many animals were bred for that product and not for meat, so lamb was not an option as a food source. Older animals were sold as mutton once their prime wool production was over, but in general the focus was on breeding the best animals for fleece and keeping them alive for that harvest.
When cotton and synthetic fabrics became more popular the wool trade collapsed and instead of the fleece having the value it was the meat. With a huge variety of breeds to choose from the UK has a rich heritage of native sheep breeds that produce not only amazing wool, but great quality meat too.
Now, the Prince’s Countryside Fund has given a grant to the National Sheep Association (NSA) to explore the potential in heritage breeds, their natural inclination to certain types of terrain and how sheep farmers can capitalise on the resurgence of interest in heritage breeds as well as hogget and mutton. Although foodies are aware of the taste difference in older sheep there is still a stigma attached to mutton among the general public, some of whom may remember stringy tough meat at school dinners. Modern mutton is produced to gain the maximum flavour but without the toughness associated with old and tired animals.
It is hoped that there will be a wave of interest in heritage and rare sheep breeds and their meat in the same way that wine, cheese and other specialist artisan products have serious connoisseurs and that this will spread globally (albeit in small volumes to start), making Britain once again the home of the best and most in demand sheep breeds in the world.
This provides sheep farmers with an alternative, high value market for their produce which could make the future a little more secure for the small scale producer. We know that British meat is well regarded in other countries and by telling a story with the production methods, the history of the breed and a superior quality we can carve out a niche in the sheep meat market.