The Romney is a "long-wool" sheep that developed as a breed before 1800 on alluvial seacoast pastures in southeast England. Romney Marsh sheep were carried to New Zealand in the 1850s with rapid success, soon becoming the world's second-(to the Merino) most numerous and economically important breed. This order still holds.
In the mid-1990s Romneys were 58% of the more than forty million sheep in New Zealand. Coopworths (originally Romney crosses) and Perendales (also originally Romney crosses) made up together another 16% of the New Zealand national flock, with Merinos at 7% and Corriedales at 6%. This vast Romney gene pool, in the hands of breeders dedicated to making genetic gains by selection, is a great resource to breeders in other climes (e.g. USA, Uruguay, United Kingdom, Falklands)
In 1904 the Riddell family of Oregon made the first documented importation of Romneys into the United States, from England. The American Romney Breeders Association (ARBA) was founded in 1912. The breed is now established, though not common, all over North America, Alaska and Hawaii included.
Romneys are medium-size. They typically have wool everywhere, and lots of it. The majority have an openface without wool below the eyes. The paintings of Romney heads by Canadian artist Martha Robinson (the art work centerpiece for the 2008 New York State Sheep and Wool Festival) give a wonderful sense of rugged farm sheep; many visitors only see Romneys turned out for shows and sales, less often in full fleece. In personality, Romneys are more placid than flighty. They get along well with handlers relatively new to sheep and with young people.
The Romney fleece will bestrong, with an average single fiber about twice the width of a fine-wooled sheep like Merino or Rambouillet. With this width come luster (shine) and resistance to wear. The fleeces are relatively easy to spin, thus popular with hand-spinners of all skill levels. A favorite end-use for Romney yarns is outer garments like Arans and Ganseys (fisherman's sweaters). Natural-colored Romneys (black, gray, silver, brown, variegated) are valued by hand-spinners and weavers who like the palette of natural colors.
The major end-use of Romney wool worldwide, however, is in wool-rich floor coverings made in Europe, New Zealand, Australasia and America. Thousands of tons of white Romney wool go through these carpet mills each year. While many people think wool-rich carpeting just a luxury for the homes of movie stars, it makes great sense for many more down-to-earth places. There is also great demand it in the commercial hospitality world (e.g. hotels, convention centers, cruise ships). Wool is long-wearing, naturally fire retardant, takes dyes well and even when not organic is green. All these virtues except the first belong to white wools of all breeds, of course, not just Romney. Long-wearing in addition describes all strong wools, not just Romney. Remember, though, that when you walk on a wool-rich or all-wool carpet made in America, NZ, or Europe, you are walking mostly on Romney wool.
Romneys and first-generation Romney crosses are also the foundation of New Zealandâ€™s export trade in frozen lamb, in which that nation leads the world.
The story of sheep breeds is the story of people with sheep. Lynn Barnes, of Halsey, Oregon has been raising Romneys since 1932. The breed in America owes much to this remarkable man and his wife, Ethelma. The late Morris Culver got his first Romneys before 1950. In 1972 (and it was not easy) he enacted the then-heretical idea of having natural-colored Romneys registered along with white ones. This has become a great satisfaction to Romney breeders in the U.S; close to half have some natural-colored Romneys. Another family important to the association and the breed in America are the Kalinas of Oregon, in action since 1972 and also now in the third generation. New Yorker Shirley Paul has been raising Romneys for nearly 40 years, recently doing almost everything by herself.
The American Romney Breeders Association (ARBA) was lucky to have Joseph E. Wing, a noted American sheepman, as the first secretary. Wing's books In Foreign Fields (1913) and Sheep Farming in America (1912) are wise and very readable, though not devoted to Romneys. ARBA also owes much to Dr John Landers, its secretary-treasurer for decades until 1998. www.americanromney.org is the ARBA web site.
In the United States, the Romney is today the choice of the breeder who likes long, strong wools and the challenge of using and marketing them; wants to make significant genetic gains from within the breed; wants a high-value (in the right market) wool and meat sheep; and respects both past and future economic importance on the world stage.