The Romney, formerly called the Romney Marsh sheep but generally referred to by the local farmers as the Kent, is a breed of sheep originating in England. The Romney is a “long-wool” breed recognized in England by 1800. Exported to other continents, the Romney is an economically-important sheep breed, especially to the sheep-meat and wool export trades of New Zealand.
The breed evolved from medieval longwool types of which the Romney and Leicester breeds are early examples. The sheep recognized by 1800 as “Romney Marsh” or “Kent” were improved in body type and fleece quality through crossings with Bakewell’s English Leicester. A Romney can be either colored or white.
The first confirmed export of Romneys from England was a shipment of twenty from Stone, Kent that went on the Cornwall to New Zealand in 1853. With these and a further thirty ewes sent in 1856, Alfred Ludlum established New Zealand’s first Romney Marsh stud in 1860 at Newry, in the Hutt Valley, and Ludlam’s brother-in-law, Augustus Onslow Manby Gibbes, also bred them around this time in Australia—at his famous sheep property, Yarralumla.
In 1855 there had been 60,000 Merinos in NZ, but the Romney Marsh sheep thrived more quickly, supplanting the Merino over most of the country. The New Zealand Romney Marsh Association was formed in 1904. Alfred Matthews was the first president; the stud he founded, Waiorongamai, is still going. In 1965 three-quarters of the national flock was Romney.
In the mid-1990s, Romneys comprised 58% of the New Zealand sheep flock (estimated in 2000 at 45 million), with Coopworths (originally Border Leicester on Romney crosses) and Perendales (originally Cheviot on Romney crosses) making up another 16.6% of the national flock, in which Merinos stood at 7% and Corriedales at 5.5%.
The New Zealand export lamb trade started in 1882 with a shipment aboard the Dunedin of 4900 frozen carcasses to London’s Smithfield Market. This was by far the biggest meat cargo ever carried over such a distance to that time. February 15, the departure date, is still celebrated as New Zealand Lamb Day. After 1932 the technology for shipping chilled fresh meat by sea (and later by air) further enhanced the export trade.
The story of Romneys is hardly limited to England and New Zealand. The breed has been established in settings as different as Patagonia, Australia, Portugal, Brazil, Canada, and Southern California.
The sheer number of Romney ewes and lambs in New Zealand make the breed not only the biggest input by tonnage to overseas and domestic wool trade, but also the major part of the country’s export frozen lamb trade, as purebreds and first-generation crosses. New Zealand is the world’s largest exporter of frozen and chilled lamb. In 2008, NZ sheep-meat exports (mostly of lamb) brought in more than half of the country’s NZ$4.5 billion meat export revenues.