11 August 1995

Pioneer and father of modern stock-breeding

ROBERT BAKEWELL was a scientist, an innovator and a risk-taker, but above all, he was a superb farmer.

He died 200 years ago, but is well remember for pioneering livestock breeding. Before Bakewell, the process was "the haphazard union of nobodys son with everybodys daughter". He changed all that.

Championing the practice of "in-breeding", he produced the New Leicester. As a sheep, it was well-suited to the needs of the time. Its carcass provided the cheap, fatty meat which a growing, mostly labouring, population demanded.

Upon receiving a complaint from one gentleman over its level of fatness, Bakewell retorted: "Sir, I do not breed sheep for gentleman, but for the public."

This mans legacy becomes apparent when we realise that the New Leicester became infused into virtually every one of the 40 or more native British strains.

He believed that livestock should be bred for the butcher, rather than merely slaughtered at the end of its working life. And, with his Improved Longhorn cattle, he developed an animal in which "the feeder, the butcher and the artist may all equally delight".

Pat Stanleys biography* of Bakewell includes descriptions of many Longhorn herds. There is, for example, the tale of one "submitted to the hammer" in March 1791, thereby marking the first pedigree cattle sale ever recorded.

Also included is the touching account of a visit in 1874 to the Calke Abbey herd. A visit "one February, mild and balmy as the May mornings of the poets, or the day that first lures the flyfisher to the stream".

From such beginnings, the progress of this breed "with the carriage of a lion and the spirit of a dove", is charted to the present day. The Longhorn Cattle Society currently has 392 members and 206 herds.

Bakewell also formed the Dishley Society, where it was written in the rules that no member could show rams on a Sunday, the forerunner of the Leicester Agricultural Society. TR

*Robert Bakewell and the Longhorn Breed of Cattle, by Pat Stanley, Farming Press, £13.95.