Know Your Fiber: Dorset Horn Wool
Posted on September 30 2019
Known for their rams’ dramatically spiraled horns and their close, springy fleece, Dorset Horn sheep are originally from the verdant hills and valleys of southwestern England. Although they have largely been raised for the past several hundred years for their meat, spinners and other fiber artists have increasingly been seeking out wool from these lovely, pink-nosed sheep with spectacularly curled horns.
The ancestors of Dorset Horn sheep were valued for their wool and meat, but it may have primarily been their dung that made them so important to farms in southwestern England. Raised on the chalk lands, these sheep were essential farm equipment for anyone hoping to grown a crop in that chalky soil. Farmers would make sure to fold their sheep every night right on their crop fields, ensuring that the dung would fertilize the otherwise poor soil. Without the aid of sheep, cropland in that part of England would not have been nearly as fertile; some writers and historians are of the opinion that the dung the sheep produced was far more valuable to the southwestern farmers than either the wool or the meat.
Sheep from Dorset County were long known as a particularly prolific breed; it wasn’t uncommon for ewes to give birth to twins and this has carried over to their descendants, the Dorset Horn. The Dorsets’ true superpower, however, was their ability to breed out of season. The biology of the vast majority of sheep breeds means that other sheep need to breed in the fall and lamb in the spring. However, the Dorsets were unique in that they could bred as early as spring. This meant that fresh lamb could be available throughout the year – in an era without electrical refrigeration, this trait made the Dorsets particularly valuable.
The Dorsets’ fecundity and ability to breed out of season led to careful breeding and development of the Dorset Horn as a primarily meat breed during the 1800s. Crossing Dorset with Somerset Horned, as well as possibly the Merino and other sheep, breeders worked to increase the size of the native Dorset sheep, while still maintaining their ability to breed out of season and their propensity to give birth to twins. Thus, the Dorset Horn was established.
By the mid-1800s, wool prices in the U.K. began to seriously decline, mostly due to cheaper imports of wool from other countries. Renewed interest in dual-breed sheep, sheep that could provide good quantities of both meat and wool, meant that interest in the Dorset Horn surged. A wool sheep that could breed out of season, and whose ewes could be counted on to frequently throw twins? The Dorset Horn was just what southwestern U.K. breeders for looking for. The Dorset Horn began to quickly spread to other southwestern counties.
The Dorset Horn was popular, and it was well-known enough throughout the rest of the world that by the mid-1800s that exports of live animals began to occur. The first Dorset Horns in the United States arrived in Oregon in 1860, imported by Richard Scott. More Dorset Horn sheep gradually made their way to the rest of the United States as their popularity increased. By 1885, they were exhibited at a livestock show in Chicago, and that was when their popularity really began to take off. By the end of the 1800s, Dorset Horn sheep could be found across the United States. By the late 1880s, the first Dorset Horn flock book – a record of registered sheep – was established in the United States.
Interestingly, although Dorset Horns abounded in the southwestern U.K., it wasn’t until 1892 that the first Dorset Horn flock book in the U.K. was established. The impetus to create the first U.K. flock book was largely due to a desire by farmers to avoid the high duties implemented in the United States’ Tariff Act of 1890, also known as the McKinley Tariff. This act imposed high duties on a variety of foreign goods, including wool and sheep, and were intended to benefit American manufacturers and farmers by discouraging imported goods and livestock from other countries. However, U.K. sheep breeders who traded in live animals had one chance to avoid these tariffs – U.K. sheep registered in an official flock book by a breed association were exempt from United States import duties.
The establishment of the first Dorset Horn flock book in the U.K. was fraught with local politics. By 1890, Dorset County’s eponymous sheep had become quite popular, and their population extended throughout the neighboring counties; many of the largest breeders lived in neighboring Somerset County, rather than in Dorset. The kerfuffle began when these Somerset breeders met to begin the process of establishing a flock book. When news of this first arrived in Dorset County via the county newspaper, there was an upset in Dorset County. Dorset farmers objected quite strongly to the idea that an organization representing Dorset sheep might be founded in neighboring Somerset country.
There was strong support in Dorset County for creating a Dorset Horn Sheep Breeders’ Association in Dorchester, Dorset. However, the Somerset contingent persisted in their efforts to establish the organization in Yeovil, Somerset. Arguments between the breeders in those counties ensued, contentious meetings were had, and even the local press got involved with the Dorset County Chronicle declaring adamantly that the flock book being, “established anywhere but in Dorset was wholly out of the question.” Much of the population of Dorset County were indignant to think that Somerset country could effectively steal the glory of their Dorset Horn sheep. In the end, Dorset County won out. The first Dorset Horn Sheep Breeders’ Association and flock book in the U.K. would be established in their namesake county. Over the next couple of years as the flock book and association bylaws were established, peace between the Dorset and Somerset breeders appears to have been achieved.
Around World War I, the Dorset Horn population began to decline, along with many other heritage breeds. This was followed by an even greater decline around World War II. Larger farms were being established to produce ever greater amounts of meat, and were necessarily stocked with sheep that were larger and could produce greater quantities than the Dorset Horns. Even more unfortunately, the Dorset Horn and other heritage breeds would see yet another population drop on top of everything else by the mid-1900s as synthetic fibers became more available and increasingly popular.
It is worth noting that world wars and synthetic fibers were not the only things that were causing a drop in the Dorset Horn population. Even though heritage sheep populations in general were facing significant declines by the 1950s, up until that point the Dorset Horn was still a somewhat popular sheep because of its ability to breed out of season. Many farmers wanted to breed this ability into other sheep, and the Dorset Horns themselves were still a relatively popular meat sheep in their own right. Dorset Horns needed more space than other sheep, though. While the large spiral horns on the rams and smaller comma-shaped horns on the ewes were beautiful, they could also get caught in modern fencing or on each other. In particular, farmers were concerned about the horns on the sheep damaging others in the tightly packed quarters of livestock transportation.
Unluckily for the Dorset Horn, and fortunately for larger farms and breeders, the first Polled Dorset appeared in 1949. It happened by chance when four hornless, or polled, Dorset ewes were produced by a single Dorset Horn ram. This Dorset Horn ram went on to produce the first polled ram lamb about five years later. A new breed of Dorset was born. Polled Dorsets have no horns, but have retained many of the other popular Dorset characteristics, and it was these sheep that started to become much more popular than the Dorset Horn. Polled Dorsets were simply more easily kept and managed; they had the fertility and ability to breed out of season, without those pesky (but beautiful!) horns. Defeated by their own polled kin, two world wars, and synthetics fibers, by the early 1950s Dorset Horns in the U.K. reached an all-time population low of around 12,000.
Concerned that the Dorset Horn might be dying out, Dorset Horn breeders in both the United States and the U.K. have embarked on various marketing strategies over the past several decades to promote this heritage breed, with varying degrees of success. While numbers of Dorset Horn in the U.K. grew to 38,000 by the late 1980s, today there are only around 900-1500 registered in the U.K., and in the United States the current registered Dorset Horn population is currently at less than 1,000. The Livestock Conservancy lists the Dorset Horn as a Threatened breed. The only way to save this unique heritage breed is to use it – and as crafters and fiber artists we are well positioned to help out the Dorset Horn.
Join other spinners, felters and additional fiber artists and rediscover the unique wool of the Dorset Horn! It has a wonderfully uniform, creamy white color and is completely free of kemp. The fleeces of Dorset Horns are quite dense and firm, and the fibers have an irregular crimp. It is a medium wool that has a staple length of around 4 inches, with an average fiber width between 28-34 microns. This makes it perfect for a wide variety of projects including sweaters, hats, blankets, and more. Spin or felt up some Dorset Horn for your next project, and help save this beautiful heritage breed! Our Dorset Horn top is available by the ounce both in our brick-and-mortar shop and online.