The Ryeland sheep was developed in the Southern part of Herefordshire (Archenfield) on land which originally grew a great deal of rye. It is probably the oldest of the recognised breeds, the earliest references dating back to the twelth century when the monks of Hereford were trading in Ryeland wool.
The origins of the breed are uncertain. Youatt, writing in 1837, suggests that the Ryeland descends from Spanish Merino sheep imported into England by the Romans. Certainly the Ryeland was the only British sheep that could compete with the Merino in fineness of wool.
The Ryeland breed spread throughout England, Scotland and Ireland but, by the early eighteenth century, despite the quality of the wool produced, numbers were already declining.
The original Ryeland was a small, slow-growing sheep. During the eighteenth century the necessity of feeding a growing urban population prompted breeders to develop 'improved' breeds which would be bigger and grow more quickly. The quality of their wool was of secondary importance.
Robert Blakewell began his programme of 'sheep improvement' in the 1740s culminating in the development of the New Leicester which was ready for sale as mutton a year earlier than any other breed.
Some breeders, who could afford to, resisted 'improving'. George III, under the influence of his agricultural adviser Joseph Banks, kept a pure-bred Ryeland flock on heath and bracken land at Windsor and attempted to preserve the fineness of the wool, but such efforts were few and far between.
Crosses with Lincolns, Leicesters and Cotswolds were still being made in the 1860s and very few breeders paid any attention to the pure strains of Ryelands. By 1903 only fifteen pure-bred Ryeland flocks remained.
Nearly too late, the Ryeland Flock Book Society was formed to preserve the pure-bred Ryeland. The first flock book was published in 1903 and closed to foundation stock in 1918.
The enthusiasm of the society in promoting the breed halted the decline in numbers and by 1920 there were eighty registered Ryeland flocks and Ryelands were being exported to Australia and New Zealand. In 1922 Ryelands took twelve prizes at the Smithfield Show.
Although, in recent years, some breeders have developed a slightly longer-bodied Ryeland, looking to the market for commercial rams to sire meat-lambs, the Ryeland is still judged for the quality of its wool as well as its conformation, thus following a tradition of many hundreds of years.