Is Berkshire the sheep capital of Britain?

PUBLISHED: 00:00 11 May 2020

(c) Chris Strickland/Getty Images/iStockphoto

(c) Chris Strickland/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Chris Strickland

If – or when – you think about sheep you might be excused for thinking about the rolling hills of Wales or possibly the valleys of the Yorkshire Dales, but in fact, Berkshire has a claim to be the Sheep Capital of Britain

Few counties do not have a fairly large contingent of sheep but Berkshire has always had a big population of these wonderful animals and this year would have been the 400th anniversary of the world famous East Ilsley Sheep Fair to which people – and sheep – have flocked annually.

It all began in 1620 when East Ilsley was granted a charter to stage a sheep fair in the village. It was to become an event that would be second only to Smithfield in terms of an annual fair, but bigger than anything else in the land as a specific sheep fair. Of course, East Ilsley was rather different then. Today the area is seen as quiet countryside but all those centuries ago it was a focal point for both travellers and traders and sheep farmers.

Let us time travel a little and go back to 870 when King Alfred was not yet the monarch but fighting alongside his brothers in a bid to push back the invading forces of the Danes, who seemed determined to take over Wessex but had been stopped in their tracks in Berkshire by a number of serious skirmishes.

One of those fights took place at Ashdown on the Berkshire Downs, not far from what we now know as East Ilsley and was known back then as Hildeslei 
– which meant battlefield. Even as the battle raged and the Danes were defeated there were spectators – sheep! Yes, the whole place had been a serene but hilly pasture for sheep for years before then and for centuries afterwards.

East Ilsley was an important watering hole – well, several watering holes actually – on the main coaching route from Oxford to Newbury and consequently to London, so what better place to bring your sheep to market?

The sheep sales were a part of local life for many years before becoming official, which was possibly brought about by the sheer (sorry about that!) numbers of sheep involved. We are talking of thousands of sheep converging on East Ilsley and not just from the county but from all over the country – including Scotland!

From gaining the charter in 1620 right the way through to 1934 there were two sheep markets each month during the period April to October and 
on each occasion there were pens up and down the main High Street and on adjoining land where the sales pen was also erected.

As the world celebrated the wonder of railways, many sheep farmers brought their stock to East Ilsley by rail with just a comparatively short walk to the market. However, it is suggested that as road usage also became more popular the possibility of herding sheep along the highways also became more difficult and farmers who had normally stuck with tradition frequented their local markets more often. Thus in 1934 the official East Ilsley sheep market ceased to operate and the claim to be Britain’s capital of sheep farming looked to be over.

However, all was not lost because the villagers could not simply shrug their shoulders and consider the matter closed. Despite the intervention of World War II, there was always a move to rekindle the great market and in 1975 it finally made a comeback as a village fete, which has continued to grow in popularity to this day and is officially known as East Ilsley Sheep Fair.

Far from being confined to sheep sales though, it is a day of celebration of village life, a day of fun, which includes displays of sheep shearing as well as such competitions as wife-carrying races. There are bands, choirs, beer tents (of course), craft displays and sales, and many other great attractions for this historic family day out.

Everyone locally was looking forward to the East Ilsley Sheep Fair’s 400th anniversary but then came the threat of coronavirus and events all over the country being cancelled.

Having got this far, one thing is for certain – the world-famous East Ilsley Sheep Fair might not be what it once was but it will be back, and the sheep and the crowds will flock once again to this unique spot in Berkshire.

A very special sheep

Berkshire was not only famous for the East Ilsley Sheep Fair but also for its own particular breed of sheep – the Berkshire Nott. Sadly this breed is no longer with us but it is believed to have been bred into the Hampshire Down and in turn the popular Southdown.

The Berkshire Nott was not renowned for its fine wool as it was actually quite coarse, but it was a big sheep, described as being quite tall, having a black face and a Roman nose. They were very hardy and freely roamed land to fallow because the manure provided a rich additive to the soil and the meat potential was high.

Because they were hardy the Berkshire Nott could mostly be turned out and then left to fend for themselves, making them very low maintenance. For centuries they were the most popular animals at the East Ilsley Sheep Fair.

Beating the bounds with sheep

Beating the Bounds is a very old custom that survives in many counties in Britain but probably not many have beaten any bounds with a flock of sheep. That is what happened a few years ago in this county when a lady by the name of Kay Everett, then 80, used her right as a Freeman of the Borough of Reading to herd her sheep over Caversham Bridge 
in 2009.

She did it to help publicise the Beating of the Bounds that was to take place a few weeks later and also to help raise funds for Age Concern. There was no limit to the number of sheep being herded but then nobody counted them for fear of falling asleep.

There are many sheep stories, ancient and modern, from Berkshire and they all add up to the main point – Berkshire is without any doubt the Sheep Capital of Britain.

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