Looking back at the first flock of Cheviots in Ireland

Memories 19-7-18 SM Farm

Writing about Cheviot sheep, one of the old writers penned that they had both ‘dignity and courage’.

Underlining that here was a breed with plenty of vim and a will to survive, this agriculturalist continued by saying that ‘if one put a Cheviot sheep in a corner, it would make a bold dash for freedom’!

Visitors to this year’s ‘Great Balmoral Show’ may well have noticed a rather impressive ram on the North County Cheviot display. Although this tremendous tup most definitely had dignity and courage, thankfully his good temperament prevented him from making a ‘bold dash for freedom’!

When visiting the stand the writer met with Alastair Armstrong of Leem Livestock who, despite being confronted with a non-sheep owner who knows next to nothing about the subject, patiently went on to explain the three types of North County Cheviots.

Alastair outlined the ‘Hill Type’, a very hardy low maintenance sheep developed on the rugged hills of Sutherland; the ‘Caithness Type’ in the form of a bigger, heavier sheep hailing from the fertile land of the historic county from which it takes its name and finally, the ‘Border Type’ representing a pleasing blend of the former two types.

“The Cheviot breed has a tremendous history going back over 200 years,” Alastair told the writer and with much enthusiasm and knowledge he went on the outline the role Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster in Caithness, Scotland.

When it came to sheep, Sir John Sinclair (1754-1835) was a whole-hearted Cheviot man. He formed the British Wool Society in 1791 and the following year gave this description of the Cheviot breed: “Their limbs are of a length to fit them for travelling and enable them to pass over the bogs and snows which a shorter legged animal could not penetrate” before going on to describe their meat as being “fully equal in flavour to any other”.

In 1838, just three years after Sir John passed away, one of our very own ‘whole-hearted Cheviot men’ became among the first to introduce the breed into Ireland. This gentleman was Mr David Robert Ross of Rostrevor, County Down.

Having introduced his foundation stock, Mr Ross maintained their purity through the introduction of highly-bred Cheviot rams. During those years when he was serving as MP for Belfast, Mr Ross exhibited his sheep at Irish agricultural shows with noted success.

Although Rostrevor is thought by many to be an attractive resort with a beauty of its own, it doesn’t really compare with the Caribbean Island of Tobago. But why compare these two locations? Well, in February 1851 Queen Victoria appointed Mr David Robert Ross to be Lieutenant-Governor of the small Caribbean Island of Tobago with its wide sandy beaches and hot, tropical weather.

Although we don’t know how Mr Ross received news of his appointment its easy to imagine him attempting a ‘cart-wheel’. This was quite an appointment and it’s also very easy to imagine him lying back on a white-sandy beach with a glass of chilled pineapple juice by his side … thinking about those Rostrevor hills and his Cheviot sheep back home!

On a more serious note and in sadder vein, just a six months after his appointment news came from the island of Tobago to the islands of Great Britain and Ireland that David Robert Ross Esq had lost his life in a tragic accident.

On June 28, 1851, an island party had been held to celebrate the anniversary of the Queen’s coronation. It was dark when Mr Ross took his leave of this event to travel along the coastal road to Government House. At one stage in the journey, the carriage in which Mr Ross was travelling toppled over and fell down a 30-foot precipice. The injuries sustained by Mr Ross suggested his death had been almost instantaneous.

And so it was in August 1853 the flock of Cheviot sheep which had been established by Mr DR Ross came to be sold by auction. Advertisements (see alongside) were widely circulated through the Press. The lots coming forward were broken down as follows: 11 Tups; 5 Tup Lambs; 125 Five-year-old ewes; 181 Four-year-old Ewes; 89 Three-year-old Ewes; 100 Two-year-old Ewes; 110 One-year-old Ewes; 133 Ewe Lambs; 240 Two-year-old Wedders; 110 One-year-old Wedders and 128 Wedder Lambs.

Following the sale, an Englishman who attended wrote a letter to the Newry Telegraph. In it he stated that “no stranger or other person could fail to be charmed with their visit to Rostrevor on account of the sale and the beauty of the place”.

Those attending this historic Cheviot sale were treated to a luncheon and the aforementioned letter-writer stated: “I have constantly heard of the liberality and hospitality of Ireland – I now have great pleasure in adding my humble testimony to the fact.”

Regarding the sale, this gentleman reported that “the condition of the sheep was most perfect” and “I have never seen a flock turned out so uniform in good quality and so completely free from disease”.

Although we in the Memories from the Farmyard team do not have details on actual prices and purchasers realised at this historic Cheviot sale, the impression gained from the aforementioned letter suggests it was a marked success.

This historic event gave flock-owners across Great Britain and Ireland an opportunity to procure well-bred stock from one of our earliest Cheviot flocks … sheep with dignity, courage and, if put in a tight corner, the tenacity to make ‘a bold dash for freedom!’

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