The 18th century agriculturist Robert Bakewell introduced stock breeding methods that revolutionised the quality of Britain?s sheep, cattle and horses. The innovations he pioneered are as sound today as they were then and are practised worldwide.
Until then stock of both sexes had been kept together in the fields with random breeding resulting in many different types. Bakewell separated the sexes, allowed mating only deliberately and specifically and by line breeding fixed those characteristics he thought desirable. He called it breeding ?in and in?.
The objective was to produce animals for meat alone to feed a rapidly growing nation rather than relying on meat from older animals that were past their prime as draught animals and retiring from the yoke. These new animals would have a much higher proportion of meat than bone and would fatten quickly.
Robert Bakewell was born near Loughborough in Leicestershire into a family of tenant farmers. As a young man he travelled widely in Europe learning about other farming methods and took over the farm at Dishley when his father died in 1760.
This period ? 1701 to 1786 ? was the time of the Agricultural Revolution when Jethro Tull developed the seed drill and the horse drawn hoe and ?Turnip? Townsend introduced four year crop rotation from Holland. The use of turnips and clover in the rotation was new and as the enclosures gathered pace forcing the peasants off the land, the result was a huge increase in yield. England exported 11.5 million quarters of wheat in 1705 and 95 million quarters in 1765.
Bakewell set about improving the land at his farm at Dishley with economy in mind.. His cattle were housed in stalls in winter and their manure collected and used on the land. The water meadows were originally in ridge and furrow as in most of the county but were ploughed and cultivated leaving the grassland with a perfectly even surface so that they could be flooded from a canal he built so as to cut grass four times a year. Turnips and cabbages were thrown into the canal and collected in a specially built reservoir where they came out beautifully clean and ready to be stored for the winter.
Stands of willow were planted to provide wood for gates, hurdles and fence rails.
Robert Bakewell?s finest achievement was the development of the Dishley or New Leicester sheep. Descriptions of the Old Leicestershire sheep at the time suggest it was an ugly, angular animal with heavy bone that took three to four years to fatten.
A contemporary wrote; ?Bakewell had formed in his own mind an ideal perfection, which he endeavoured to realise, and that with this view he, with unwearied perseverance, year after year, and at something more than market price, selected from the flocks around him such ewes as possessed points, which were most likely to produce the animal he wished for?.
George Culley, who studied under Bakewell, and went on to breed the hugely successful Border Leicester sheep and Shorthorn cattle, said that the Dishley sheep surpassed all other breeds in their ability to fatten and the return given to the amount of food consumed. He described the distinct differences from other Longwool breeds: ?The fine lively eyes, clean head, straight broad flat back, the barrel like form of the body, fine small bones, thin pelt and inclination to early maturity. The mutton fine grained and of superior flavour?.
The sheep had great fullness and weight in the forequarters whereas today an improved sheep would be heavier in the legs and saddle. But Bakewell was catering for the market in the second half of the 18th century when fat mutton was the diet of the poor man.
Ram letting was his next innovation and the Dishley Society was formed whose aim was to protect the purity of the sheep and the interests of the breeders who between them had established a breed capable of improving other breeds by an astonishing amount. Much ill will was unleashed by the press but the breeders knew they had to protect their assets and by charging high prices ensured only the best ewes were put to an expensive ram. It was very successful, Bakewell made 1,000 guineas by letting 20 rams in 1786 and 3,200 guineas in 1789 by letting ten rams.
Bakewell introduced the use of teaser rams whose genitals were covered by a cloth. As soon as a ewe was in season she was removed and put to one of the best rams. Her head was put in stocks for mating so as not to tire the male. This method meant that a ram could cover many more ewes than in the past. Also these breeders never sold their best ewes but kept them until they were too old for breeding.
How did he do it? Before the improvers arrived on the scene, the accepted practice in breeding farm animals was to select females of the native stock of the county and breed them to bulls of a different breed ? a haphazard union of nobody?s son with everybody?s daughter. It was also believed that no bull should be used on the same stock for more than three years and no ram for two years otherwise it would lead to deficient offspring.
There was resistance to change of any sort exacerbated by the thought that these breeding practices went against everything the church stood for and could be deemed irreligious.
The new practices were directly contrary as they bred not only from the same line but the same parentage. It was originally called breeding in and in but later became known as line breeding. The new breeders mated father to daughter, son and mother, brother and sister and crossed superior branches of the same breed. Thus Bakewell produced his celebrated stock and he believed that there could be only one best breed and if you crossed it, it would be with an inferior breed thus adulterating and not improving.
His next goal was to improve the Longhorn, an outstandingly docile cow, an easy calver that did well on poor pasture. As usual Bakewell had a clear picture in his mind of the ideal animal. The principal points were
2.Utility and beauty of form (to include fineness of bone, lightness of offal and the greater weight in the best part)
3. Quality of flesh (a point before which had not been considered by breeders)
4. Disposition to fatten.
Bakewell again bred in and in as a way of fixing the type he wanted for beef production. He was aware of the risks attached and was prepared to cull when necessary. Although he mostly line bred, he also bred from closely related animals and sometimes from unrelated animals. For example at one point he found that milk production in his sheep was falling and allied with the short bone in the leg, the lambs were having difficulty suckling. A cross to a larger ram solved the problem.
None of this was easy and it was recorded that; ?Amid many disappointments he never despaired of his ultimate purpose, but bore up against ridicule, neglect and predictions of failure till the end?.
He preserved pickled joints and skeletons of his best animals for comparison and kept details of the fineness of bone, size and shape of frame, thickness of muscle layer and depth of outside fat.
The improvement in livestock is illustrated by the average weights of sheep and cattle sold at Smithfield Market. In 1710 the average weight for beef was 370lb, for calves 50 lb, for sheep 28lb and lambs 18lb. In 1795 beef averaged 800lb, calves 148lb, sheep 80lb and lambs 50lb.
Bakewell didn?t stop at sheep and cattle. He bought some Friesland mares while touring Holland which he thought would improve his horses. These became the Shire horse. The use of the whip was banned at Dishley as Bakewell treated all his animals kindly and was outraged by the cruelty and neglect meted out to farmed animals at that time. He bred pigs and propagated a large variety of cabbage for animal feed that was grown in areas surrounded by corn fields to keep the variety pure
This innovator designed a cattle crush, was the first to plough with two horses abreast rather than four in tandem and designed an attachment to the plough that would enable beans to be sown at the same time as ploughing.