The Cotswold Hills of Gloucester were historically the major wool-producing region of England, dating back to the medieval times and continuing for centuries. About half a million sheep grazed the hills. The wool was regularly packed down from the hills on horseback to be shipped to Flanders and Lombardy for cloth production. The merchants who dealt in wool were some of the richest men in England in medieval times.
The origin of the Cotswold breed that takes its name from the hills is in debate. Many breeders believe that the Cotswold is one of the oldest British sheep breeds in existence, perhaps descending from sheep of Ancient Roman origin but perhaps even older. However, because the fleece of the medieval flocks was fine, other experts have proposed that the modern Cotswold breed, with its comparatively coarse fleece, arose from more recent introductions from the neighboring lowland areas.
What we do know is that, from the late 1700s to the early 1800s, Leicester and Lincoln blood was added to the population to suit it for meat production. Subsequent selection focused on a combination of size and heavy fleece, making this a dual-purpose breed.
The Cotswold also enjoyed great popularity in America. It had been imported to New York by 1832, perhaps even earlier. The breed quickly spread across the United States, traveling out to the frontier, where it proved itself an excellent range breed. Cotwsold rams were commonly crossed with fine-wool ewes to produce heavy lambs for market. The results of these crosses were so successful that several sheepmen imported large flocks to America, including George Grant of Victoria, Kansas.
It was also in the United States that the Black Cotswold gained a foothold. Breeders began raising flocks of colored sheep in the mid-1800s in Kentucky, but it was not until about 1990 that the Black Cotswold was recognized as a breed in its own right. Despite the name, sheep of this variety can also be gray, silver, blue, and white.
But matters quickly changed when the Merino was first introduced to the United States. The Merino produced a finer fleece and leaner, faster-growing lambs. The Cotswold breed continued to be used for crossbreeding for a time, but the number of breeders keeping pure stock dwindled rapidly.
By 1970, there were only 23 registered Cotswolds in North America. Subsequent rescue efforts have increased the breed’s numbers since then, aided by a growing interest in hand-spinning, but it is still far from secure. Black Cotswolds, in particular, are quite rare. That said, Cotswolds can be found in most states, but are more common in the East.
The modern Cotswold is a dual-purpose breed, excelling in both wool and meat production. Its fiber is a favorite with hand-spinners due to its beauty, strength, and length, along with its ability to take dye well. The pelts are also of top quality.
Another use of the Cotswold breed is in crossbreeding, either for heavy lamb production or to improve the wool quality of a flock.
This is a remarkably docile but engaging breed. It is calm and amenable to confinement, but curious and outgoing. Most sheep of this breed are even rather affectionate. Many feel that the Cotswold has a regal bearing that adds to the breed’s charm.
The Cotswold has a comparatively loose flocking instinct.
This breed has excellent mothering instincts. Ewes rarely have any difficulty in bonding with their lambs.
On the whole, the Cotswold is a hardy, trouble-free breed. It is born vigorous and stays that way throughout its life.
One thing to watch out for, however, is matting, or cotting. This occurs when the sheep are exposed to excessive rainfall. Cotting not only reduces the quality of the fleece, but can lead to health problems unless corrected.
- Suitability for beginners.
- Suitability for moderately cold climates.
- Strong foraging instincts.
- Lambing ease.
- Excellent mothering instincts.
- Superb fleece quality and beauty.
- Distinctive lamb flavor typically described as aromatic but not muttony.
- Poor tolerance of heat and rain.
- Need for top-quality pasture to reach maximum size.
- Slow growth.
- Tendency of fleece to mat.