One of the rarest breeds
The Leicester Longwool is one of the sheep breeds listed by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy as critically endangered. Breeds considered critical have fewer than 200 North American annual registrations and an estimated global population of less than 2,000. The Leicester Longwool breed is also known as the English Leicester (pronounced lester).
Long, lustrous wool
The Leicester Longwool is one of the “luster longwool” breeds, so designated for the sheen and brilliance of their wool. The sheep appear to shine just after shearing, when the clean wool next to their skin catches the sunlight and makes them glisten. Leicester Longwools are medium to large sheep, weighing 180–250 pounds. The fleece is heavy, curly, soft handling, and lustrous with a spiral tipped staple up to eight inches. Fleeces weigh from eleven to fifteen pounds, occasionally up to twenty pounds!
The breed was developed in England in the 1700's by Robert Bakewell. Bakewell was the first to utilize modern animal breeding techniques in the selection of livestock. Robert Bakewell deserves recognition for his work with these sheep because it changed livestock farming forever and influenced the work of people such as Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel.
Since wealthy colonial farms often subscribed to agricultural journals to keep up with the advances of the day, news of Bakewell's endeavors reached the thirteen colonies. George Washington was so interested in Bakewell's ideas that he made reference to him in several letters and imported his Leicester Longwool stock for his own flock. The breed became very well known in the colonies.
The Leicester Longwool was highly prized in America, especially for its use in crossbreeding to improve “native” stock. During the 1800s, however, the breed lost favor to the Merino and other fine wool breeds. After 1900, the Leicester Longwool fell into decline and was likely extinct in the United States during the 1930s or 1940s. A very small population remained in Canada. In 1990, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, a historic site in Virginia, reestablished the breed in North America by importing sheep from Australia. Several conservation flocks have now been established, and the population of Leicester Longwool sheep in North America is increasing. This is important, given that the breed remains rare globally.