The Norfolk Horn is one of the oldest breeds of sheep in Britain. It is believed to be descended from the ancient Saxon black faced sheep once prevalent in Northern Europe. Although named after the county of Norfolk the breed developed in the relative isolation of East Anglia and was the prevalent breed in Norfolk, Suffolk, north Essex and south east Cambridgeshire.
The fine fleeces of the Norfolk Horn were used in the Middle Ages for the East Anglian worsted industry upon which much of the region’s wealth was based. Sheep were also a critical element of the foldcourse rotation practised in East Anglia, being used to graze and dung both the fallows and corn stubbles to improve soil fertility. Norfolk Horns were and remain well suited to poorer quality, light soils and flocks were historically concentrated in heathland areas such as the Breckland, north west Norfolk and the Suffolk coastal areas. Before the late eighteenth century relatively little attention was given to pedigree breeding and livestock improvement. When greater attention was given to breed development, contemporary agricultural commentators and improvers did not hold the breed in high regard. Indeed some went so far as to state that the otherwise high quality standard of the livestock in East Anglia was let down by, as they saw it the mediocre character of the indigenous sheep, some did however comment on the excellent flavour of the meat.
Consequently by the late eighteenth century breeds such as Southdown sheep were being introduced to East Anglia. These breeds were either replacing Norfolk Horns altogether or were being used to repeatedly cross with the Norfolk giving rise to a black faced half breed. With a matter of a few decades Norfolk Horns lost their pre-eminence to these crosses which were ultimately to become the Suffolk sheep breed. In 1886 the Suffolk Sheep Society was formed. The Suffolk is now the ram most frequently used to produce finished lamb in Britain, making the contribution of the Norfolk Horn to the modern farming industry invaluable.
The number of Norfolk Horns declined through out the nineteenth century although a few flocks were maintained by breeders to improve and develop the Suffolk breed. By the end of the nineteenth century however, there were only perhaps 300 Norfolk Horn sheep remaining. The survival of the Norfolk Horn in any form is entirely down to one man, Mr J. D. Sayer, who built up a flock from 1895 and for 30 years from 1919 had the only known flock in existence. Part of this flock was based at the Cambridge Animal Research Station during the late 1940 and 50s and formed part of a study into the inheritance of cryptorchidism which is a characteristic sign of inbreeding. By the late 1960s the breed were literally on the brink of extinction with only a handful of seriously inbred individuals remaining.
To increase genetic diversity and to ensure the survival of the breed, careful cross breeding with Suffolks was undertaken in the early 1970s. Over the last 30 years the breed has been pure bred and the Norfolk Horn of today has retained much of the character of its forebears.
Since the 1970s Norfolk Horn numbers have risen considerably and there are now around 2500 pedigree Norfolk Horns in 79 flocks which although scattered across the British Isles are still concentrated in Norfolk and Suffolk. In recent years the greater interest in the breed has significantly increased the number of sheep and breeders to a point where in 2005 RBST felt confident to move to Category 4 ‘At risk’on their watchlist. However with relatively few individual breed lines in-breeding remains a problem.
One of the characteristics of Norfolk Horns are that they are excellent foragers with an ability to convert lower grade pasture to maintain condition andrear lambs. As a result they are well suited to conservation grazing.The desperate plight of the Norfolk Horn breed in the 1970s, more than any other breed, led to an increased awareness of the need for genetic conservation amongst traditional farm animals and the consequent formation of the Rare Breed Survival Trust in 1973. Since that time no breed of domesticated livestock has become extinct