By Don Burgess
The Romney breed originated in the Kent region of southeastern England. This region, with its harsh winds, heavy rainfall, and wet soils provided abundant forage, but also required sheep that could withstand this environment. The Romney, often referred to as the Romney Marsh, was developed and selected for its strong, foot rot resistant hooves and durable fleeces that remain healthy under harsh conditions. These characteristics have enabled the breed to thrive in many areas and become one of the most successful breeds worldwide.
The success of the Romney breed is evident in many locations, but perhaps nowhere more evident than in the New Zealand sheep industry. The New Zealand sheep industry is one of the most economically important in the world, and Romneys are a key piece of that success. The numbers underscore the importance of the breed; Romneys make up the majority of the more than 40 million sheep in New Zealand1. The Romney breed has also been used as a key component in the development of other breeds, such as the Perendale, which are also a key part of the New Zealand sheep industry. The terrain and climate of New Zealand is incredibly diverse, from the subtropical north to the cool alpine climates of the mountains. This tremendous diversity necessitates an adaptable and dependable breed.
Romneys were first imported into the United States in 1904 by William Riddell and sons of Monmouth, Oregon. The breed quickly spread in popularity throughout the west coast. An early champion of the Romney breed was Joe Wing, a noted sheep promoter and judge, who helped to further develop and promote the breed. The American Romney Breeders Association (ARBA) was formed in 1912 to continue to enhance the role of Romneys in the U.S. sheep industry. Today, the ARBA has members in states throughout the U.S., and continues to promote the breed by maintaining an official registry, sponsoring breed shows throughout the country, maintaining the breed standards, and keeping an active youth program.
While the white Romneys have historically been the most dominant, natural colored Romneys have recently become a significant part of the breed. The first purebred natural colored Romneys were registered by Morris Culver of Oregon in 1972. Since then, the numbers of natural colored Romneys have increased substantially, driven in large part by the great variety of colors of fleeces that appeal to the hand spinner market.
Today, Romneys in the U.S. can trace their development back to the original English Romneys, with some recent introduction of genetics from New Zealand. Not all producers focus on the same attributes of the breed; some emphasize producing quality fleeces for the hand spinner or commercial market, while others focus on producing larger framed carcasses for the lamb market.
Romneys were developed as a dual purpose breed, and they continue to excel at producing both quality meat and highly desirable wool. The adaptability of the breed also extends to the feedlot. Romney lambs do very well on a forage-based finishing system, and are able to efficiently convert forages into high quality, lean carcasses that many consumers prefer. Many feel that meat from Romneys also has a milder, more delicate flavor, even in older lambs, and this milder flavor is often preferred for grass finishing systems since lambs are typically slower to finish on grass than on grain. Romney lambs also finish quite well on grain-based diets, where they can finish out in 4-7 months, depending on the preferences of the producer and the market. Ninety day growth rates approaching one pound a day are also possible under careful management and feeding programs.
Romney wool is one of the breeds’ most unique and most desirable attributes. The Romney breed produces a heavy fleece, with mature ewe’s fleece commonly weighing 8 to 15 pounds. Although still considered a coarse wool breed, the wool of Romneys is the finest of all of the long wool breeds, with spinning counts generally ranging from 40 to 48, or 38.0 to 31.0 microns, and a low grease content which equates to clean wool yields of 65-80%. Romney wool also has a striking luster and a very soft handle, giving raw fleeces quite an attractive appearance.
The structure of the Romney fleece also contributes to its functionality. The fibers hang in separate locks, with minimal cross fibers, making the fleece easy to spin. The crimp should be uniform over the entire length of the fiber, from butt to tip. Staple length can vary based on the preferences of the producer and needs of the end consumer, but generally exceeds 5 inches in length.
One of the strongest markets for Romney wool is for the hand spinning market. Many fiber artists seek out Romney wool due to its soft handle and high luster. Beginning spinners find it easier to work with due to its lock structure and minimal crossing of fibers. Wool can be washed and carded prior to spinning, or can be spun “in the grease”, and the low grease content of the Romney wool make spinning the unwashed wool a pleasurable and rewarding experience. Each hand spinner has their own personal tastes, and for the producer who is willing to understand and cater to the preferences of their customers, the return can be quite impressive. A quality hand spinning fleece can sell for many times the commercial value of the wool itself.
Romneys are a medium to large sized breed, with the weight of mature rams ranging from 225 to 275 pounds, and mature ewes ranging from 150 to 200 pounds. They are naturally polled with a broad, open face, with ample width between the ears. The nose and feet should be black. Natural colored Romneys exhibit a wide variety of colors and patterns, including chocolate browns, slate greys, variegated, and badger patterns.
Both rams and ewes of the Romney breed tend to have a rather calm disposition. Romney rams are quite vigorous breeders, and can breed a large number of ewes in a season. Rams reach sexual maturity at 6 to 7 months of age, and can remain viable breeders well into their advanced years. Romney rams can also be a great addition to many crossbred operations, adding fleece quality, good mothering abilities, and size to their offspring.
Romneys tend to exhibit more of a seasonal breeding tendency than many other breeds, having a tendency to cycle from September to January, but producers can successfully manage them for fall lambing. Ewes are normally docile and often rather friendly, especially when maintained in a small flock with regular contact. Ewes are generally good mothers, producing high quality milk, and will readily care for twins and triplets if managed properly. Multiple births are common, with 1 to 3 lambs born to mature ewes. Romney lambs are quite hardy and generally “hit the ground running”, and will be up and nursing a few minutes after birth.
Romneys can be found throughout the U.S., but are most concentrated along the coasts, and particularly in the northeast. They can be found in small spinner’s flocks, on family farms, and in large commercial operations. The adaptability and versatility of the Romney makes it a good fit for many producers throughout the U.S.