Today marks the death in 1795 of a man few people will have heard of, but whose work in selective breeding of farm animals in the Eighteenth Century changed ‘life down on the farm’ forever, leading eventually to Darwin’s theories of evolution and, more recently, to experiments with genetic engineering and artificial insemination.
Robert Bakewell by John Boultbee, courtesy of Wikipedia
Back in the 1700’s there had been little work done to improve livestock by controlled breeding. The young Bakewell was brought up at Dishley Grange near Loughborough, and he went to study agriculture in Ireland and on the continent, particularly in Holland. His father held some 440 acres of Leicestershire farmland, a quarter of which was arable and the rest used for stock-rearing. When his father died in 1760 Robert was 35. He set about improving the arable land, following the example of others by introducing irrigation, experimenting with crop rotation and fertilizing the land. He diverted rivers and constructed canals to flood the fields, and set up experimental plots to test different manure and flooding methods. This led to earlier grass production in the Spring, meaning that cattle could be grazed and fattened earlier in the year than was previously possible.
But it was with livestock selection that he became a true pioneer. Up until then there were all sorts of geographical distinctions between breeds – a different type of sheep, for instance, was found in Wales compared with those in the Yorkshire Dales. The differences were accidental in the sense that no-one had consciously bred them to be different, but their isolation from each other meant that characteristics became more marked and distinct. This intrigued Bakewell, who wondered whether these characteristics could be bred in, to produce animals with particular features such as longer wool, heavier carcasses etc. He separated the males and females so that breeding was no longer random. By introducing specific males to particular females he was able to monitor and selectively breed different varieties in a system he called ‘in and in’. All this was done without any knowledge of modern genetics – it was simply ‘trial and error’. And of course, in-breeding can emphasise bad qualities as well as good features, so Mr Bakewell would needed to have been meticulous in checking his new-born lambs.
The New Dishley ram and ewe.
News of his successes in improving livestock quickly spread. Arthur Young, an agricultural journalist, visited the Dishley Grange farm ten years after the experiments started, saying: “All his cattle are as fat as bears, yet his land is no better than his neighbours.”
His most influential breeding programme was with sheep. The Lincoln Longwool was developed to give large, yet fine-boned sheep, with long, high quality wool. It was in turn used to develop a subsequent breed, named the New (or Dishley) Leicester. The New Leicester had good quality fleece and fatty fore quarters, in keeping with the prevailing taste for fatty shoulder mutton. The sheep were exported widely, including to Australia and the New World and their bloodlines remain to this day, particularly in Leicester Longwools.
By 1771 Bakewell had some 60 horse, 150 head of cattle and some 400 sheep on his land. He encouraged visitors to come and view his farm, holding ‘tup open days’ and deliberately fanning controversy by dismissing other breeds, such as the Lincoln sheep, as ‘a barrowful of garbage’. His own stock commanded high prices and these caught the imagination of the newspapers and the ‘Dishley craze’ quickly caught on.
In 1783 he founded the Dishley Society to help other farmers improve their livestock. He also pioneered the hiring out of prize rams to farmers in the district, with the result that improved meat and wool production was quickly introduced, and the gene pool was widened.
By now he had moved on to cattle. At the time cattle were primarily used not for their beef but for their cart-pulling qualities i.e. as oxen. Bakewell noticed that the longhorn breeds seemed to put on weight more than others, and to eat less. He took a Westmoreland bull and used it for breeding with longhorn varieties and ended up with the Dishley Longhorn. Thanks in large part to him, the average weight of bulls sold at market more than doubled within eighty years – an amazing achievement, and one which led directly to Britain being able to feed its burgeoning population. (O.K. fillet of beef may not have been on the menu for the urban poor, but higher meat output would certainly have been popular at a time when ‘Roast Beef of Old England’ was a patriotic cry, and when meals were very meat-concentrated, with vegetables and fruit as something of a sideshow at the dinner table).
Not content with sheep and cattle Bakewell selectively bred horses to come up with the Improved Black Carthorse – the forerunner of the Shire horse. He also worked with pigs.
An extract from a contemporary book showing the ‘old horse’ above and Bakewell’s improved cart horse below.
His work is commemorated in the New Dishley Society, founded in 1994 to perpetuate his memory. Their website is at http://www.le.ac.uk/el/newdishley/aims.html and I am grateful to them for the pictures of animals shown in this post.
Finally this blog is dedicated to the beautiful Jo Rogers, whose birthday it is today. She is herself the product of generations of highly selective breeding. Happy birthday, daughter dear!