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.
Wiltshire Horn Hybrid
We have begun crossing our Wiltshire Horn ewes with Dorper, White Dorper, and Katahdin rams, keeping the best of the female offspring for hybrid breeding stock. Our goal is to raise lambs that will reach market weight on grass alone within the limited season for forage growth in Atlantic Canada, while continuing to maintain the genetics for a purebred Wiltshire Horn flock.
Dorpers and Katahdins are both breeds developed in the 20th-century to be low-maintenance sheep, with the ability to graze effectively and raise market lambs on forage alone. Like the Wiltshires, both breeds shed their wool; unlike the Wiltshire Horn, Katahdin and Dorper rams and ewes are polled.
Katahdins are a medium-sized breed developed by Michael Piel, who named the sheep after Mount Katahdin in Maine where he farmed. Piel crossed “African hair sheep” obtained from the US Agricultural Research Service in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, with other breeds, including Wiltshire Horn. We raised purebred Katahdins for several years and were impressed with the ewes’ mothering ability and the growth rates of the lambs, but found them less rugged overall than the Wiltshires – not as attentive to possible
predators on pasture, and with less parasite resistance.
The Dorper breed was developed in South Africa in the 1930s and ‘40s for farmers who wanted hardy sheep that could produce lambs that reached market weight in about five months on grass alone, and could survive the winter’s cold wind and rain and the summer’s extremely high temperatures.
Our Experience with Hybrid Sheep
To date, we have been impressed with the offspring of Wiltshire Horn ewes bred to Dorper and Katahdin rams, and with the offspring of the F1 hybrids as well. They are vigorous lambs, grow well on grass, and have added some interesting colour patterns to our flock. As we have had to adjust to the reality of climate change, we have come to appreciate the protection from sunburn that comes with the dark skins of some of the
Dorper hybrids. Both the Katahdin and the Dorper hybrids seem to have the parasite resistance of their Wiltshire Horn dams. The Dorper rams that we have used seem to be more vulnerable to parasites than our other rams, which is to be expected based on the breed descriptions in the literature.