The Ryeland breed is one of the oldest British breeds of sheep and, until recently, was classified as a rare breed. There are now sufficient numbers in Britain for it to be classified as a 'minority' sheep breed.
Ryeland sheep originated in Herefordshire on land which grew a great deal of rye and the earliest references date back to the twelth century when the monks of Herefordshire were trading in Ryeland wool. Ryeland wool traded from Leominster was known as 'Lemster ore' for the amount of gold it earned.
In those days, of course, sheep were kept primarily for wool but the modern Ryeland is a true 'dual purpose' sheep producing excellent meat lambs (on milk and grass alone) as well as the fine-woolled fleece which is very suitable for hand-spinning (fleece weight 2.5-3kg, staple length 6-10cm, Bradford count 56's-58's).
The lambs are obviously smaller and slower growing than, say, a Suffolk-cross, but the meat has a wonderful flavour - just like lamb used to be. If a larger lamb is required, the Ryeland ram makes an excellent terminal sire when crossed with Scotch and Welsh half-breeds, Mules, Mashams and Welsh Mountains.
The most attractive characteristic of the Ryeland to the smallholder, however, is its placid temperament. They do not normally try to jump out of their field (their legs are too short for athletics!) and, if they do happen to get out through a gate left open, they rarely go further than the next nice patch of grass which means you are not constantly chasing them about the countryside.
Ryelands are very adaptable to most conditions and do well even on poor grazing, making them useful for following on as grass-cutters after horses have been brought in. They also seem to be virtually immune to foot-rot.