The Romney sheep breed originated in the challenging wetland area of the Romney Marsh in southeast England. Over the centuries, the locals developed a sheep that was able to withstand the cold, wet conditions in which they lived. Even the youngest lambs had heavily felted ears and thick, warm fleece that could shake off the wet after a cold rain. Romneys became known as a hardy, carefree, longwool breed that produced long lustrous fiber useful for nearly everything, including outerwear, rugs, fluffy socks, sweaters, and mittens.
As Romneys spread globally into other environments, they adapted to the new conditions. As a result, the breed’s original appearance has diversified into different looks. Some have more open fleeces, where the moisture can be shaken out; other fleeces are thicker and stand on end, allowing the sheep to be “sculpted” for show. Some variations are more heavy boned (common in the US West, Australia, and New Zealand) and others lighter boned (more common in the US East Coast). The show animals tend to have longer necks and legs, while the working animals in most fields are lower to the ground and heavier looking. In summary, there are accepted differences within the breed, as well as common characteristics — the length and crimp of the fiber, the black eyeliner, and the black of the nose, mouth, and hooves.
In my flock, several of these types are quite evident. I have different types of fleece and different body conformations. Looking across our Romney flock is kind of a who’s who of the Romney world. In fact, the three youngest girls in this year’s Romney breeding group reflect some of the differences that can be found.
For the past seven weeks, we’ve had three little white lambs wandering around our Romney breeding groups. When the groups merged, the three became good friends: Omega (one of our last-born twins from Zoe’s daughter, Grace), Olivia (one of the next-to-last-born twins from Liberty), and Zora (a single daughter of Norma, a 4-H ewe who delivered as a lamb and now belongs to a young friend) can almost always be found grazing together. They have become buddies.
When you look at these three girls, there are a lot of similarities. They are all white Romney lambs born in late March (within five days of each other!), and all have acceptable reasons why they are still small in size this late in the year. They all have open faces (with little wool, some more and some less), nice black points (eyeliner, nose, lips, hooves), and fleeces with length and crimp very typical of the breed. Yet to look at them, they are very different too.
Of the three, Omega (left) has a very open fleece that will shed rain well and a finer bone structure more common in the East Coast Romneys. Her fleece parts at the topline and hangs on either side of her neck and under her coat. She wears the same coat size as the other two, but she fills it more with her body, since her wool takes up less space underneath. To look at her straight on, you see her curious and eager face looking back at you, wondering what you are up to and whether you have brought any of her favorite graham cracker treats!
Zora (shown eating in the photos, so the odd jaw angle is only an illusion) is pretty much at the other end of the spectrum: her fleece essentially stands on end all over her body and head, reaching out to the fresh air. Although she wears the same size coat as the other two, she likely weighs much less, since most of the space under the coat is taken up by her vast volume of wool. Even her face has wool. Although it’s essentially clean (with only little tufts at the cheeks, which will diminish with age), her eyes are usually hidden by the wool from the topknot and from the sides of her head. When you look at this girl, you mostly see the abundance of wool. It won’t necessarily weigh more than Omega’s locks, but it sure takes up a lot more space!
That leaves Olivia, who is between her two friends in both genotype and phenotype. She has less loft to her wool than Zora, but more than Omega; more bone than Omega, but likely less than Zora. She is more typical of our Romney lambs of recent years, a nice combination of bulk and density in her wool. Her face is much cleaner than Zora’s, but she seems to have more wool than Omega. In reality, they have about the same amount and length of wool; it’s just a bit different in type.
What is even more interesting is that all of these girls have the same sire: our boy Martin. This just goes to show that if you keep a variety of “types” in the ewes of your flock, you can tease out different traits in the lambs of a particular sire. Not every sire will deliver this — some drop a very specific type of lamb — but most sires carry enough variety in their genetic makeup that there is diversity in their offspring. Our goal is the breed standard — all that is good about the Romney — but within that framework, their heritage has provided much room for variety.