Visitors to Ryton Pool Country Park over the past few years may have been lucky enough to encounter some very special residents: our flock of friendly Hebridean Sheep.
Since 2020, park rangers have worked closely with local conservation grazier Dale Huddlestone and his family to make Dale’s sheep a focal point of their important grassland management on site.
The background of Hebridean Sheep
Towards the end of the eighteenth century, this small and hardy sheep breed introduced by the Vikings was thriving. Sadly, the agricultural revolution, the introduction of new breeds, and the clearance of many sheep farms from the Hebrides took its toll. The sheep were replaced by what were considered ‘improved’ breeds and by the early twentieth century, these sheep, which had been in the region for almost a thousand years, had been almost wiped out.
By the end of the nineteenth century, flocks of Ancient Native Breed Hebridean Sheep, which are uniformly black in colour, were reintroduced to the parklands of large country estates in both Scotland and England. The development of these parkland flocks was instrumental in the survival of the breed into the mid-twentieth century.
In 1973, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust identified Hebridean sheep as a breed in danger of extinction. Only a few parkland flocks remained, and there were no sheep discovered in their homelands of the west of Scotland.
Today, thanks to graziers like Dale, the Hebridean is a success story having been taken off the Rare Breed Watch List.
How the Hebridean Sheep help look after our park
Rangers currently manage the meadows in a variety of ways to benefit the greatest range of species possible, and the sheep have an important role to play in engineering this biodiversity.
Our Hay Meadow is managed for its wildflowers, producing stellar displays throughout the spring and summer. During late summer, the meadow is harvested for hay, and the sheep then graze the meadow over the course of the winter, keeping the grasses in check until the flowers begin to return in the spring. Hebridean Sheep are ideal for this job as they don’t trample the ground excessively and are defined by their pasture grazing habits, readily eating weeds such as thistles, brambles and saplings.
In the spring, once the meadow reaches about 5cm in height, the Hebridean’s winter work is done. The sheep are then moved onto our second and third meadows where grasslands are managed for invertebrates. They graze these meadows in a patchwork fashion, leaving some areas of grass taller and others shorter which benefits a range of invertebrates.
The Ryton Pools Country Park team are on the cusp of signing a new Biodiversity Net Gain agreement which will release funds from biodiversity damaging building projects to allow us to improve the second meadow. Once again, the sheep will be at the centre of this new and exciting scheme!
A dedicated grazier and award-winning sheep
Dale is a dedicated grazier and can often be seen on-site tending to the sheep. During 2023, one of Dale’s Ryton Pools animals won best Ram at the national show which Dale puts down to the quality of the pasture the sheep are on!
Councillor Heather Timms is the Portfolio Holder for Environment, Culture and Climate at Warwickshire County Council, and a regular visitor to the county’s country parks. She shared:
“Warwickshire County Council’s Country Parks team epitomise our values when it comes to protecting our wildlife and considering our impact on the environment in all we do. The characterful Hebridean Sheep at Ryton Pools are an excellent example of this, supporting rangers in their vital work promoting and protecting biodiversity. I hope many residents will take the opportunity to visit the park, meet the sheep, and chat to our rangers about their latest projects to look after our county’s stunning green spaces.”
Ryton Pools Country Park offers 100 acres to explore and a wealth of wildlife to discover, with easy-to-access well-surfaced paths. There are also on-site toilets, a café, a play area and visitor centre. Plan your visit here.