The Lincoln Longwool Sheep
Saving an Endangered Sheep Breed
Reading Time: 7 minutes
By Alan Harman — Canadian Kate Michalska is farming the endangered Lincoln Longwool sheep as a conservation project but says their meat is lovely and mild to eat. At first glance, eating a threatened breed seems counter-intuitive, but Michalska says no way.
“Unless their meat is eaten, and their wool is used, they will go extinct,” she says. “So, I have wool processed into yarn for weavers and knitters, and roving and raw wool for spinners. I also sell sheepskins and meat.”
Michalska and her husband Andrew have raised Lincoln Longwools for 20 years at St. Isidore Farm — named after the patron saint of farmers — with its 150 acres of forest and 54 acres of arable land northwest of Kingston, Ontario, 165 miles east of Toronto.
The breed can be traced back to the first century Roman occupation of England when it became the foundation for all British long wool breeds. It was illustrated in the Luttrell Psalter, a manuscript, commissioned by a wealthy landowner in the first half of the 14th century, and was crossed with native sheep to produce the Leicester bred. That was then crossed back with Lincolns to produce the present-day Lincoln Longwool sheep.
They arrived in Canada in the 1800s and became firmly established with a reputation for tolerating cold weather, good mothering of lambs, and growing superb meat and wool. They won awards at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and was one of the most popular breeds in Ontario in the early 1900s.
The Lincoln Longwool sheep is sometimes called the world’s largest sheep breed. Mature Lincoln rams weigh from 250 to 350 lbs. and mature ewes from 200 to 250 lbs. They are rather rectangular in form, deep bodied, with great width. They are straight and strong in the back and cover thickly as mature sheep.
Over the years, it was refined to produce lean meat, with lambs maturing slowly over nine months to about 80 lbs. The fleece of the Lincoln is carried in heavy lustrous locks that are often twisted into a spiral near the end. The staple length is among the longest of all the breeds, ranging from eight to 15 inches with a yield of 65% to 80%. Lincolns produce the heaviest and coarsest fleeces of the long-wooled sheep with ewe fleeces weighing from 12 to 20 lbs. The wool ranges from 41 to 33.5 microns in fiber diameter.
Michalska knows why the breed disappeared from Canadian farms and why it has an opportunity for a strong commercial return. “I think it fell out of favor because it is a slow-growing sheep, so it takes a while to get to a market weight and wool went out of fashion for a while with the advent of synthetics,” she says.
“I think with the slow food movement, people are beginning to appreciate the great taste of the Lincoln meat and are willing to wait for it. Also, the wool is long and strong and has a distinctive luster. People are rediscovering the great properties of the wool — it makes durable outerwear, socks, and great rugs.” Although hardy enough to survive Canadian winters, there are thought to be fewer than 100 Lincolns left in the country.
The husband and wife team also raises an endangered cow breed called Lynch Linebacks, a Canadian landrace originating in Eastern Ontario. They are thought to have descended from Gloucester and Glamorgan cattle, two ancient English breeds that came to North America with the first British colonists. Lynch Linebacks are triple purpose animals used for dairy, beef, and possessing a good temperament for use as oxen.
Michalska’s efforts with the Lincolns and the Lynch Linebacks are part of a national effort to preserve heritage breeds as a safety net, with their genetics possibly better adapted to climate change and resistance to diseases.
In 2007, Canada was one of 109 countries to sign the Interlaken Declaration on Animal Genetic Resources, an agreement to protect the world’s livestock biodiversity for future generations.
Before settling on the Lincoln, Michalska did her homework. “I have always liked sheep and when my husband and I moved to a farm, the plan was to have sheep,” she says. “I was already a spinner, so my natural interest was for wool animals.”
She read an article in Harrowsmith magazine that reported the number of farm animals in danger of becoming extinct. “This seemed less glamorous than whales and lions but certainly equally important,” she says. “I looked at the list of sheep compiled by Rare Breeds Canada — now Heritage Livestock Canada — that had historical significance in Canada but were becoming very rare.” She excluded any breed that was rare in Canada but doing fairly well in its home country, such as the Scottish blackface.
“I settled on looking for Cotswolds and Lincolns.” Michalska bought her first Lincolns from Glenn Glaspell in Whitby. Ont. Glaspell, who died some years back, farmed 400 acres in the middle of Whitby, quite literally surrounded by suburbs.
“The Lincolns were a sort of hobby to him and he obviously enjoyed showing them at the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto,” Michalska says. Then came disaster at St. Isadore Farm. “In January 2015, we had a barn fire and lost all 28 of our lovely sheep,” she says. “It was devastating.”
Despite the grief, it was not long before she realized she really missed the Lincolns. After rebuilding the barn, she bought a ram and five ewes from Bill Gardhouse of Schomberg, Ontario, in the fall of 2015 and started over.
Today her flock is up to 25 Lincolns — two mature rams, six young rams and 17 ewes. The young rams were destined to go for meat and sheep skins. “I only want to get to about 40 ewes, but I am hoping to be able to sell small groups to others that might be interested in them,” Michalska says.
She introduces new genetics by working with other small breeders in Ontario who have unrelated Lincolns. “I am looking to trade a ram,” she says.
Her wool is sold online and at the annual wool sale held by the Upper Canada Fibreshed. “Typically our summers are hotter in Canada than in the Lincolns’ native UK. As a result, we shear Lincolns twice a year, in early spring and fall to prevent the wool on their backs from felting.”
Michalska says she believes Bill Gardhouse has the largest Lincoln Longwool sheep flock in Canada. “Bill farms alone and is getting older and has had some health concerns,” she says, “He shows a lot of animals at the Royal Winter Fair and takes top prizes, but I know he is cutting back.”
The largest concentration of Lincolns is still in the UK. “Bill Gardhouse was over there a couple of years ago judging and he was saying that what is happening here is also happening there,” Michalska says. “A farmer has them, dies or gets sick, and the animals are just sold at auction and those genetics disappear.”
The Lincoln Longwool sheep was first imported into the United States at the close of the 18th century. It never become a very popular breed in the U.S. but has had its importance in the central states and Idaho and Oregon, producing purebred, grade, or crossbred rams for use on fine-wool range ewes.
National Lincoln Sheep Breeders Assn. spokeswomen Debbie Vanderwende says that since Jan. 1, 2013, some 3,683 Lincoln have been registered by its 121 members.
Michalska says the Lincolns have a lovely temperament. “When I purchased my ram, not only was he gorgeous, he was extremely good natured, loves to be petted. Bill Gardhouse described him as being a gentleman. They are less skittish than other breeds. “I love to sit in the pasture with the lambs,” she says. “They can be a bit skittish at first, but they soon come around to nibble on my clothing or hat.” They are definitely social animals.
“I took my ram Henri — pronounced Onree, it’s French — out of the pen with the ewes and he had his own pen, but he began not to do well. He was not eating much and looked sad, so I put him back in with the ewes that were having lambs.
“That evening twins were born, and it was not long before they were jumping off his rather large back. He was so sweet with them. His appetite picked right up, and he looked so much brighter.”
The ewes are easy lambers. “I have never, in the 20 years I have had them, had to deliver a lamb,” Michalska says. “I’ve delivered a neighbor’s lambs, but never a Lincoln.”
“Because we want to be able to shear in the fall, we lamb in February which can be very cold. I coat the lambs. I have a camera in the barn, so I can get up in the night to check for new arrivals. “That means a quick dry, sometimes with a warm blow dryer. It’s funny to watch the lambs get very mellow while being dried, then with warm coats it’s back to mum for another nice warm drink.”
She gets quite a few people contacting her asking if they can visit to see the sheep and she is considering an open house. “We rotationally graze our animals and bring them in at night to keep them safe from coyotes,” Michalska says. “Eastern Ontario is considered marginal land but having animals rotationally grazed, has made a huge difference to the land.
“We have a llama, Duncan, who is well-bonded with the sheep. I don’t know if they don’t like the smell of the llama or his size, but we have not had difficulty with coyotes since we got him.”
And that’s vital in the drive to save the Lincoln Longwool sheep.