Robert Bakewell: in profile

Robert Bakewell was an English agriculturalist who pioneered the systematic selective breeding of sheep, cattle and horses. Born in Leicestershire, he is best known for his breeding of sheep with superior wool, such as the Lincoln Longwool, which led to the creation of many modern breeds.

When did you first hear about Robert Bakewell?

My father was a farmer, like me. He was interested in the history of animal breeding. To showcase rare breeds he opened the Cotswold Farm Park in 1971 and would tell me about this man who did so much to shape British agriculture. Dad set out the Farm Park livestock displays so they suited periods of history, from the Iron Age to the modern day. To help represent the agricultural revolution paddock, we had a 20ft Foamex board cut-out of Bakewell sat on a horse, so I’ve been aware of him for years.


What kind of person was he?

He was a real trailblazer when it came to improving livestock. He was also one of the first people to start selective breeding, coupling the best rams with the best ewes, and the best bulls with the best cows. He was quite a large man, so he didn’t just understand the importance of the quality of food, he obviously ate well too!

What made Bakewell a hero?

The vital role he played in the development of British farm breeds and, in particular, regional breeds. Bakewell played a key part in the development of early breed selection, which has helped give so many areas of the country an identity – be it Hereford or Angus, which are famous for their cattle, or the Cotswolds, which is famous for its sheep. These regional breeds are part of what makes Britain what it is today – and they have been taken all over the world by those who settled in places like Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

What was Bakewell’s finest hour?

In my view, it was the creation of the Leicester Longwool Sheep, with its long, lustrous fleece, which was created by mating ewes and rams with high-quality wool. We sometimes forget that the wool trade – which was built, to a large extent, on longwool breeds with fabulous fleeces – had a huge impact on the nation’s wealth.

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?

Yes, we both worked with livestock. One of my favourite aspects of farming is selecting the correct bull or ram to go with a herd or flock and looking forward to how the offspring turn out!

What do you think Bakewell would make of modern farm-animal breeding?

I think he would regard some modern selective breeding as a step too far. Due to breeding-in traits like double muscling, Belgian Blue cows often can’t give birth and have to have a caesarean. After around three caesareans, a cow will not be able to breed any more. Pushing so hard for production in livestock can cause welfare issues, and I’m not sure that would have sat easily with Bakewell.

More like this

Adam Henson is a presenter on BBC Countryfile. He also runs the Cotswold Farm Park and wrote a children’s book, A Year on Adam’s Farm (Penguin, 2021)


This content first appeared in the November 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine

Discover more history heroes, our monthy series in which popular figures from the present tell us about who inspired them from the past


York MemberyJournalist

York Membery is a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine, the Daily Mail and Sunday Times among other publications. York, who lives in London, worked on the Mirror, Express and Times before turning freelance. He studied history at Cardiff University and the Institute of Historical Research, and has a History PhD from Maastricht University.