Know Your Fiber: Exmoor Horn Wool
Posted on July 01 2022
As names go, Exmoor Horn sheep have a simple and descriptive name. They are originally from Exmoor, and both females and males are horned. But they are so much more than just their name! Read on to learn all about their ancestors’ contributions Neolithic developments in farming, their life in the Exmoor royal forest and surrounding areas from the Middle Ages all the way through the Age of Enlightenment, and what may be just the beginning of their modern resurgence.
Archaeologists have traced the human occupation of Exmoor in Somerset County all the way back to the Mesolithic. By the Neolithic period, as in many other parts of the world, there is evidence that humans in Exmoor began to farm animals and clear parts of the forest to grow their crops. This era also saw the local human population place megaliths and stone circles in Exmoor. Humans were changing their environment, and the livestock they kept changed it right along with them. Livestock such as cattle and sheep would feed on the brush and grasses of the forests and moors, and so the plants that became established in the area were plants that could survive the grazing of livestock. People of the Neolithic era, and successive eras as well, would also use livestock to help clear and prepare areas for farmland. By keeping livestock contained in one area they would clear it of vegetation and would also fertilize the land with their manure.
When the sheep and other livestock of Exmoor were not kept in one location to clear and fertilize the land, they were allowed to roam the hills and moors of Exmoor. The ancestors of Exmoor Horn sheep are thought to have been particularly well adapted to the rainy climate of the region. Indeed, the Exmoor sheep of today are known for their tolerance of rainy and cold weather. This, in addition to thriving on the tough and scrubby vegetation of Exmoor, made them a valued breed.
A large part of Exmoor was declared a royal forest by William II in 1087. Foresters were appointed to manage the land, and to prevent poachers from hunting on it. Additionally, they were expected to collect money, also known as an agistment, from locals who let their livestock graze in the royal forest. The forests and moors of Exmoor were remote, though, and it is likely that more than one farmer got away with grazing their sheep and other livestock on these royal lands while the forester was not nearby. The wool trade of the medieval era was a major part of the English economy and having a flock of sheep was money in the pocket.
In the Exmoor of the Middle Ages, there were a mix of tenanted farms owned by Cistercian monks and minor nobility, as well as small farmsteads owned by families. Wool was gathered, washed, and spun on these farms and then sent off to larger towns for dyeing, weaving, and finishing. Over the next several hundred years, the sheep and wool industry of Exmoor grew to significant size. Larger estates were established with improved sheep and farming methods, and more land was cleared. By the 1500-1600s, there were almost more sheep than there was land keep them. Farmers who grazed in the royal forest and other grazing commons were charged increasingly higher fees for the privilege, and the farmers and landowners would get into arguments about just how many sheep were allowed on a particular area of land.
The Exmoor royal forest existed for quite some time, only being broken up and sold to private landowners around 1820. The Exmoor Horn retained much of its popularity as a preferred breed for the area, although other breeds of sheep began to make inroads as the popularity of softer wool from other breeds, such as the Merino, became increasingly in demand. It was only in 1906 that the Exmoor Horn, a sheep that had roamed the moors and hills of Exmoor for thousands of years, was established as an official breed by the Exmoor Horn Breeders’ Society. Interestingly, this was done to preserve the breed as there were concerns that interbreeding from other imported breeds might eliminate the Exmoor Horn altogether. This establishment of the society meant that this ancient breed of sheep was able to retain so many of the characteristics that it had hundreds, even thousands, of years ago – a medium length and medium-fine fleece on a stocky and muscled body, able to live on moor grasses and scrub in the pouring rains of spring and fall, and the bitterly cold and freezing winters . In short, a dual-breed sheep that was perfectly adapted to its environment and climate and took minimal care to raise, especially in comparison to the more modern breeds. Breeders around the world took note of these desirable traits, and the Exmoor Horn proceeded to enter the bloodlines of a number of other improved sheep breeds.
The burgeoning popularity of the Exmoor Horn in the early 1900s was, unfortunately, short lived. With WWI followed only a couple of decades later by WWII, many sheep breeds that were best raised by letting them graze freely in the hills, moors and forests were supplanted by sheep breeds more suitable for large farms so that greater quantities of wool and meat could be produced to support wartime needs. By 1947 only 27% of sheep raised in Somerset were Exmoor Horn sheep. Add in the creation of the Exmoor National Park and the establishment of the Environmentally Sensitive Area Prescriptions of the 1990s that prevented grazing on traditional sheep lands within the park, and the Exmoor Horn breed took another hit. Today only 10% of sheep in Somerset County are Exmoor Horn, or Hornies as some of the locals like to call them.
Although some Exmoor Horn sheep crossed the oceans to form small flocks in other parts of the world, most of the the world’s population of Exmoor Horn sheep still live in Somerset and nearby Devon. There has been some renewed interest in the breed by conservationists trying to restore the heather of the Exmoor moors. From 2014-2019, the Exmoor National Park partnered with local sheep and cattle farmers to see if it was feasible to once again allow the grazing of livestock on the moors, as had been done previously for millennia. There has been a serious decline in the native heather of the moors there as an invasive species of moor grass, Molinia, has taken over much of the land which was once covered with heather. Among their preliminary findings was that heather stands increased when sheep and cattle were allowed to graze in the area. Although livestock will also eat heather, they prefer young Molinia. So long as the livestock does not stay in one area too long, it is quite beneficial for the heather. There is some concern about diseases and ticks, but some farmers have suggested that using breeds that have already developed a resistance to the diseases of the moor, such as Exmoor Horn sheep, might be best suited for future conservation projects.
Spinners and crafters are also leading the charge to helping to increase the Exmoor Horn numbers by buying and using the wool in their projects. Farmers and fibers artists of Somerset and Devon have been actively promoting the breed’s wool, pointing out that even though it is of medium coarseness at a fiber width of 33 microns, the hand is much softer than would be expected for a fiber of that diameter. The staple length is also of a medium length at around 3-4 ½ inches. Exmoor Horn wool is perfect for making durable outerwear (especially when blended with Bluefaced Leicester wool) and would also be very suitable for rug or blanket weaving. If you are also looking for a good wool for felting, Exmoor Horn felts up beautifully.
Ready to try some Exmoor Horn wool in your next project? We have it ready and waiting for you at our shop and online. Give it a try and let us know what you think – we would love to see your Exmoor Horn projects!