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A short history of the Norfolk Horn

The Norfolk Horn is Norfolk’s indigenous breed of sheep.

Rare, now found mostly in or around East Anglia, the Norfolk’s story is an extraordinary one. One that has highs and lows, twists and turns of fate, cruel ironies and odds overcome.  The following can only scratch the surface…

It’s a story that begins a long time ago, sometime around AD410 – 425, with the first Saxon settlers setting foot on Norfolks beaches bringing with them their little black faced heath sheep. A tough hardy breed well suited to a life ranging on the dry sandy heathlands of the Brecks and North-West Norfolk shaping the landscape that we have today.

The Norfolks wool was the wool upon which Norfolks wealth and power was built. A wealth that built the many fine churches and enabled the descendants of yeoman farmers to become Queen of England. Its fleece was already the focus of a thriving export trade between the Anglo Saxons and the great textile centres of Flanders before the Norman Conquest in 1066. Its wool was perfect for what became Norfolks Worsted textiles,  jealously kept and used exclusively by Norfolks famous Worsted spinners. Its export outlawed but subject to smuggling across the border to Suffolk and hence to the continent.

In a later chapter, The Norfolk was there at the heart of what would become our modern farming industry, ironically acting as the agent of its own demise. During the 18thC, as demand for meatier, more docile breeds grew, the Norfolk Horn found itself at the centre of the new science of pedigree breeding and livestock development. It was crossed with the Southdown producing what would become the Suffolk. Today, the Suffolk Ram is still used to produce most of the British Lamb that you will find on your plate.

In a more recent twist The Norfolk was a there at the centre of what would become the Rare breeds movement. Like many of our rare breeds, the Norfolk did not fit well with modern farming systems.  Once ubiquitous, their numbers declined from their heyday to the point of near extinction by the 1960’s. It was at this desperate point of loss that the Norfolk became the instigator in kickstarting the rare breeds movement and what was later to become the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.

Today, still a rare breed, it has fought its way back from the edge of extinction with over 80 flocks, mostly in its ancestral home of Norfolk.

Long in the leg, friendly, small and wily this understated modest beautiful breed of sheep underpins everything Norfolk. Its presence permeates the culture, the history, development of Norfolk and its fine city of Norwich. Its story is one that charts the rise and fall, the good times and the bad of this county. From its distant roots in the Anglo-Saxon invasion and on to the present day it’s there, quietly but resolutely at the centre of things.  Connected.  With it all.