When you are walking in the Peak District of Derbyshire, you often come across neat little tracks, cutting through the heather, and are grateful for the ‘easing of the way’. Well, here is who you thank for that kind act of trail-blazing. The Scottish Blackface Sheep. There are, of course, other breeds of sheep in Derbyshire, including the native Derbyshire Gritstone and the Whitefaced Woodland, a breed developed in the Southern Pennine range. However, the ubiquitous Scottish Blackface (sometimes known as the Blackfaced Highland or Scottish Mountain) dominates the high peaks, and with good reason.
Its origins are unclear, although it is known that King James IV of Scotland (sadly to be lost in battle at Flodden Field in September, 1513) kept a herd of over 5,000 sheep near Peebles in the Border country. The breed is incredibly hardy, and can survive the harsh Derbyshire winters. You may find two types of Blackface with distinct fleece characteristics. One has a finer fleece, with a shorter staple, and this is the type used for extremely long-wearing, high-quality Harris Tweed for suit cloth, overcoats and the like. The other fleece type is longer, coarser, no less hard-wearing, and is made into excellent yarn for carpets, and also very durable filling for matresses. Both are very well 'dressed' with copious quantities of natural lanolin, which may or may not have to be removed depending on the application the wool is used for. This explains the breeds hardiness and their 'weather resistance'. I have a wool, cable-knit sweater, knitted for me from yarn from Scottish Blackface by my sister-in-law, more than 20 years ago. I am likely to wear out before IT does!
Despite the many excellent uses of the Scottish Blackface wool, the main reason the breed is so popular is because of its meat. The lambs are low in fat (as a carcass) and provide really lean meat. This has lead to them being used where people appreciate a low-fat diet, and they also have a very pleasing flavour. In this day and age of increasing worry about food safety, it is very important to note that the Scottish Blackface appears to be impervious to scrapie, the fatal brain disease (an encephalopathy similar in effect to 'Mad Cow Disease') which affects some other sheep and goats. All in all, it is quite understandable that the Scottish Blackface is now the most common sheep in the British Isles - approximately 30% - having spread far and wide from its original home in the Scottish Borders.
By the way, don’t think of getting too close to that lamb; the Scottish Blackface ewe is very protective, and will fight predators with those horns.