The Black Welsh Mountain is the only completely black breed of sheep in Britain. It was developed in the mountains of Wales, by breeding black sheep of the Welsh Mountain breed, and selecting for finer fleece and improved body confirmation.
Black Welsh Mountain are small to medium size sheep, known for their hardiness and self-reliance, which were important qualities in their native environment. They are excellent foragers and mothers, able to raise lambs on marginal pastures. These qualities make the breed a natural choice for sustainable sheep producers.
The short, thick black wool is attractive to handspinners, and the Black Welsh Mountain market lamb is a premium meat in Britain, making them a true dual purpose breed.
On a sunny day this October, thirty-two Black Welsh Mountain sheep—twenty-four ewes and eight rams—descended from their trailers to explore their new home at the SVF Foundation in Newport, Rhode Island.
The flock traveled over two thousand miles from their Paonia, Colorado farm, owned by Oogie McGuire, one of North America’s premier master breeders of Black Welsh Mountain sheep. McGuire owns the second largest—at 142 head—and the most genetically diverse flock of Black Welsh Mountain sheep in the entire United States.
The sheep—from a flock and farm well known to Dr. Phil Purdy at the USDA’s National Animal Germplasm Program (NAGP) in Fort Collins, Colorado— were carefully selected by McGuire and SVF’s Sarah Bowley. The ewes were chosen for their good fertility and mothering data; younger lambs and yearlings were picked for their health and vigor. Above all, they were selected for their genetic diversity—in all, the flock boasts eight different bloodlines.
Over the course of the next eighteen months, these sheep will be part of SVF’s germplasm collection program, in conjunction with the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. After enough samples of the Black Welsh Mountain sheep’s semen and embryos have been collected and cryogenically stored, the samples will be moved to the Smithsonian Institute’s Conservation Biology Institute in Virginia. The flock will then be placed with East Coast farmers with the intention of expanding the genetic diversity of this rare livestock breed.
Increasing the genetic diversity of this breed, currently listed as “threatened,” is of utmost importance to its survival. There are only 10,000 head in the entire world, with the majority in the United Kingdom, as well as Ireland and Belgium, and just 1500-1800 head in the United States and Canada.
The breed was officially recognized in 1922, with the establishment of the Black Welsh Mountain Sheep Society in England. They were not brought to North America until 1972; the US breed registry, now overseen by McGuire, was established in 1990. While these dates are quite recent, the breed itself is believed to have been around since the days of the Vikings, when they were bred specifically for their black wool that required no dyeing.
They are related to other Welsh Mountain sheep, of which there are ten different breeds, varying by color. All of the Welsh Mountain sheep breeds are known for their excellent meat and wool, as well as their hardiness and self-reliance. They spend their entire lives outside, foraging on available grasses and plants; they require no grain input and are easy to keep.
The SVF flock of Black Welsh Mountain sheep will be kept in the same traditional manner—albeit in a milder climate—but they will be part of a larger project: protecting and preserving rare livestock breeds and genetic diversity for future generations.