Wiltshire Horn, also referred to as Wiltshire Horned Sheep or Wiltshires, are a medium-sized white sheep, raised for meat. Both ewes and rams have horns. The ewes’ horns curve back over their head or curve out to the sides. Rams have a thicker horn that grows a spiral loop each year until the ram is fully mature. Wiltshire Horn Sheep grow a heavy coat of coarse wool for the winter, which they shed in spring to reveal a short straight wool. Their long frame is well-muscled and the meat tends to be lean.
The Wiltshire Horn may have originated in the Mediterranean and been domesticated and brought to England in pre-Roman times. For many years, these sheep roamed freely over the open south-eastern downs of Wiltshire, covering huge distances over tough hill country looking for forage; this background has given them considerable resilience. They are kept at the Plimouth Foundation farm in Massachusetts as representative of the sheep brought to North America by the Pilgrims.
In 1975, Michael Piel imported Wiltshire Horn sheep from Wales via Canada to use in developing the Katahdin breed at his farm in Maine. These Wiltshires were eventually dispersed to other breeders in the USA. Flocks in Canada today derive from a large flock developed by Carol Postley, a Florida sheep breeder who, in the 1990s, enriched her North American stock by importing new Wiltshire genetics from Australia and New Zealand.
Wiltshire Horn sheep are a thrifty breed, doing well even on relatively poor grass and hay. Wiltshires are intelligent and independent sheep. Fans of the breed call them “feisty.” Wiltshire Horn sheep save the producer the expense and work of shearing. As well, Wiltshire ewes do not need to be crutched before lambing and lambs do not need to have their tails docked. They are seasonal breeders; the ewes come into estrus in September and cycle through to early February.
Our Experience with Wiltshire Horn Sheep
We like the grazing habits of our Wiltshires. They tend to spread out on pasture and to take advantage of a full array of planted and wild forage and browse, while also remaining alert. Leading ewes in our flock assume sentinel roles, warning the flock of threats. If necessary, our Wiltshires will turn to confront a canine or other threat, stamping aggressively and sometimes charging to drive it away. When we used a donkey for flock protection, we sometimes had difficulty managing donkey/sheep tensions as the donkey sought to be dominant and some of the ewes challenged the donkey’s dominance. We now use Great Pyrenees dogs for flock protection and this works better as the dogs put up with being the object of stomping and occasionally being butted by ewes.
Wiltshires typically produce twins by their second year, and subsequently, without, in our experience, requiring grain for flushing -- or during lactation. Some of our ewes are slow to shed all of their wool and we are seeking to change this with our breeding programme. Our Wiltshire Horn ewes require minimal treatment for parasites.
For sheep producers who prefer to work with sheep that do not have horns, the polled Wiltshire has an obvious advantage over the Wiltshire Horn. In the past half-century, sheep breeders in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand have developed different lines of polled Wiltshire Horn sheep through cross-breeding with polled breeds, including the Border Leicester, Polled Dorset, Dorper and Polled Merino. As well, the Byarlea sheep ranch in Australia developed a Poll Wiltshire flock by breeding a Wiltshire Horn ram born with a poll gene to Wiltshire Horn ewes selected for their small horns.
Polled Wiltshire Horn sheep vary in their appearance and attributes based in part on their genetic inheritance. Generally, they retain the wool-shedding characteristics of the Wiltshire Horn. Both rams and ewes have two depressions in the skull at the horn sites, which may contain a small bone knob or short keratin scur. Wiltshires without horns that have not been genetically tested to verify their double polled status may still carry a horn gene and some of their offspring may have horns.
Like their horned relatives, polled Wiltshires are thrifty sheep, doing well even on relatively poor grass and hay. Because they shed their wool, producers are spared the expense and work of shearing. Ewes do not need to be crutched before lambing and lambs do not need to have their tails docked.
Our Experience with Polled Wiltshire Sheep
The only significant difference we have noted between Wiltshire Horn sheep and polled Wiltshires is the lack of horns in the latter. When the sheep are indoors, horns can be a liability as ewes get their horns stuck in feeders, or gates, or the open pockets of farmers’ jackets. We bring our rams indoors for breeding season and put them in pens with two or three dozen ewes. The polled Wiltshire rams are easier to manage during this period as they can use standard sheep hay feeders; the Wiltshire Horn rams require special feeding arrangements to accommodate their spreading horns. As well, an aggressive polled Wiltshire ram poses less of a physical threat than an aggressive Wiltshire Horn ram, although any ram is potentially a threat in breeding season.
The polled Wiltshires in our flock tend on the whole to have longer, somewhat narrower frames that the Wiltshire Horn sheep. Whether this is generally true of polled Wiltshires in North America or is a product of the genetics of our particular flock we do not know.
We find it difficult to distinguish some of our light coloured Katahdins from the polled Wiltshires when they are running as a flock. Indeed, some are so similar in appearance that we have to double check ear tags when we sort the ewes into breeding flocks in the late fall.
Katahdin sheep are a medium-sized breed of hair sheep developed in the United States in the late 20th century. Neither rams nor ewes have horns. The sheep come in many different colours: cream, light caramel to dark brown, cream with coloured patches, and sometimes with freckled or brockled faces.
Katahdin are hardy, adaptable, low maintenance sheep that produce lean, meaty carcasses that are relatively mild in flavour. The breed is ideal for pasture lambing and grass/forage based management systems. Ewes and rams generally have a long productive life. Mature ewes usually have twins without the need of grain for flushing.
The hair coat of the Katahdin varies in length and texture but typically consists of coarse outer hair fibres and an undercoat of fine woolly fibres that thicken and grow longer in the fall. This coat naturally sheds as temperature and day length increase seasonally, leaving a shorter, smooth summer coat; thus, Katahdins do not need to be sheared.
The Katahdin breed was developed by Michael Piel who named them after Mt. Katahdin, in the state of Maine, where he farmed. Piel crossed “African hair sheep” obtained from the US Agricultural Research Service in St. Croix, Virgin Islands with a variety of other breeds, including Wiltshire Horn. Piel hoped to develop sheep that could be used instead of herbicides or mechanical mowers to control vegetation along power lines; he selected for shedding, meat-type conformation, high fertility, and flocking instinct.
In the 1980s, Piel’s successors on Piel Farm decided to reduce the Wiltshire Horn genetics in their Katahdins, to eliminate the horns and to favour selection of ewes that had multiple lambs with each pregnancy. They also found the Wiltshire Horn sheep to be less flocky and placid than they wanted.
Our Experience with Katahdins
Katahdins are proactive grazers, covering the pastures well and making effective use of forbs and browse. If there are good things to eat at a height (such as tree leaves) they stretch up on two legs like goats in order to get forage. They seem to have great rumen capacity, and at the end of a grazing day often appear ready to give birth to quadruplets. We have learned not to worry about this.
We find Katahdins to be easy to manage when we are doing indoor tasks such as weighing and sorting; they tend not to startle and flee as readily as our Wiltshires.
Katahdin lambs have small narrow heads and no horn buds, and the lambs emerge easily at birth, provided that the presentation is correct. Katahdins are excellent mothers and quickly get their lambs up and nursing. We have to watch some of them carefully at lambing time, though, as they will take another ewe’s lamb while waiting for their own to arrive.
We believe our Katahdins to be somewhat less rugged overall than the Wiltshires. They seem not to be as attentive to the risk of predators on pasture, nor as aggressive in responding to threats. As well, we find them to be more susceptible to health problems, including stomach worms. With good feed, they seem to grow and fatten more quickly than the Wiltshires, but when the going gets tough, such as during the recent summer droughts on the Island, the Wiltshires fare better.
Wiltshire Horn Hybrids
We have begun experimenting with Wiltshire Horn hybrids by crossing our Wiltshire Horn ewes with Dorper, White Dorper and Katahdin rams and keeping the best of the female offspring for a terminal cross with one of those breeds.
Our goal is lambs that will reach market weight on grass alone within the limited season for forage growth in Atlantic Canada. As we proceed with our crossing, we are attentive to the need to retain our Wiltshire Horn’s good wool shedding, parasite resistance and overall robust constitution.
Our Experience with Hybrid Sheep
To date, we have been impressed with the hybrid offspring of these crosses. They have grown well and seem to be as healthy and parasite resistant as their mothers, even though the Dorper rams that we have been using for some of these crosses have been, as the literature suggests, more vulnerable to parasites than the other rams on our farm.
In time, we hope to have a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of these hybrids’ performance as ewes. We are sufficiently pleased so far, given our goal of raising low-maintenance sheep that will produce lambs that fatten on pasture, to continue with our cross-breeding programme.