Beginning of Selective Livestock Breeding Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Robert Bakewell, one of the most prominent of the agricultural breeders of the eighteenth century, revolutionized cattle and sheep breeding by using scientific methods to develop new breeds designed to maximize meat production.

Summary of Event

Livestock breeding in England at the beginning of the eighteenth century was haphazard at best. In many cases breeders simply relied on chance matings among a group of animals kept in a common enclosure. Offspring with desired traits would be kept, and the others would be sold for slaughter. The predominant principle was to “outbreed.” Inbreeding, or mating between those closely related, was believed to weaken the offspring and ruin the breed. Where purposeful breeding was practiced, hybridization between different lines or breeds was the rule. [kw]Beginning of Selective Livestock Breeding (1760’s) [kw]Breeding, Beginning of Selective Livestock (1760’s) [kw]Livestock Breeding, Beginning of Selective (1760’s) [kw]Selective Livestock Breeding, Beginning of (1760’s) Agriculture;livestock breeding Breeding, livestock Livestock breeding [g]England;1760’s: Beginning of Selective Livestock Breeding[1600] [c]Agriculture;1760’s: Beginning of Selective Livestock Breeding[1600] [c]Biology;1760’s: Beginning of Selective Livestock Breeding[1600] [c]Science and technology;1760’s: Beginning of Selective Livestock Breeding[1600] [c]Economics;1760’s: Beginning of Selective Livestock Breeding[1600] Bakewell, Robert

The prevailing practices resulted in a confusion of breeds, many of them local, which tended to have variable characteristics. The variability was actually maintained, if not increased, by the very practices in vogue. This led to difficulty in clearly defining breeds, as such, and largely explains why few of the breeds from this era still exist.

Although there were a few other eighteenth century breeders who made impacts on livestock breeding practices, none was as prominent as Robert Bakewell. He made his mark by a combination of innate skill, careful breeding practices, and the discarding of prevailing breeding practices. Bakewell was born into a long-standing family of tenant farmers in Dishley, Leicestershire. As a young man he traveled throughout Europe observing farming practices and livestock breeding typical of each region. When he settled back at Dishley, he apprenticed under his father, eventually inheriting the farm when his father died in 1760. It was his thorough training and methodical nature that led to his eventual success, more as a breeder than as an entrepreneur.

Bakewell’s greatest innovation was to breed his animals “in-and-in.” This method involved not just incidental inbreeding, but carefully planned and extensive inbreeding. Bakewell traveled all over England, and even sometimes continental Europe, in search of animals with the traits he wanted to improve upon. When he obtained animals with the right combination of traits, he would have the animals mate. Their offspring would then be carefully evaluated for improvement in the chosen traits, and those with the best match would then be bred with either a sibling or a half sibling, or even back-crossed with a parent. Bakewell would have animals that were a little more distantly related mate to counteract some of the negative impacts of inbreeding. Key to his success was keeping males and females in separate enclosures, allowing only the mixing of those males and females that were to mate.

When Bakewell first began his breeding experiments, he was met with almost universal ridicule by other farmers. Predictions were that he would weaken his herds and end up with worthless animals. Although the in-and-in approach often did lead to weaker, lower-birth-weight offspring, as well as a somewhat higher rate of birth defects, his persistence paid off with improvements in the traits he sought and the development of stable, valuable breeds. His success eventually led to wide acclaim.

Bakewell developed new breeds of cattle, sheep, horses, and pigs, but his most enduring work was with cattle and, especially, sheep. His goal for cattle and sheep was to produce animals that maximized high-fat meat Food;production production in the shortest time possible. Because the common laboring class in England worked long hours at manual labor, meat high in fat, and therefore high in calories, was preferred. Rapid growth and fattening on minimal feed was also desired because it translated into cost savings for the farmer.

By twenty-first century standards, the improved longhorn, or Leicester, Longhorn (Leicester) cattle bull, with its high fat content, would be a disaster for consumers and farmers alike. However, Bakewell developed this breed to meet the culinary needs and preferences of his day, rather than of the modern taste for lean beef. His goal was to develop a bull with high fat content and reduced bone diameter that could fatten adequately for butchering within a few years on a minimal amount of feed. When choosing animals to begin this process, Bakewell relied not just on his eyes; he also handled the animals extensively, evaluating bone structure and fat distribution. Some of his contemporaries considered him to have an innate sense that allowed him to select just the right animals.

Choosing the animals was only the start. He also kept extensive records on each animal for each of the traits he was attempting to improve. He also carefully monitored weight gain and the amount of feed used by each animal. His observations did not stop once the animal was butchered. He would carefully study the flesh, analyzing it for fat content and texture, and would measure bone diameter. From particularly fine specimens he sometimes preserved in alcohol portions of the animal, such as a leg joint, for later study.

Although Leicester cattle have been nearly forgotten, the Dishley, or Leicester, sheep Dishley (Leicester) sheep are ancestors to many successful modern-day sheep breeds found from North America and South America to Australia and New Zealand. Bakewell’s goals in producing the Dishley breed of sheep were similar to those he had for longhorn cattle— rapid production of high-fat-content meat with minimal feed—but he did not completely ignore wool characteristics. Mutton, although eaten, was typically from sheep who were past their prime for producing wool. The Dishley was the first major sheep breed designed more specifically to be meat producers.

A more technical innovation developed by Bakewell was the progeny test. Determining which bulls or rams will be the best sires can take a long time, unless they can be mated with many different females. The proof of a good sire is its consistent production of offspring with stable, superior breed traits. Although Bakewell kept a large number of his own animals, there still were not enough of them to adequately progeny-test his bulls. This led to the establishment of the Dishley Society.

The Dishley Society was composed of Bakewell and other serious animal breeders in the areas around Dishley. By banding together and sharing information, they could hasten the development of quality breeding stock. Loaning bulls and rams for breeding service was a central activity. The more offspring a given animal sired, the more data could be accumulated about their breeding potential. Thus, within a few seasons, the best sires could be identified and properly exploited for maintaining the breed.

To ensure success and to prevent loss to members the Dishley Society developed an elaborate set of principles that all members had to follow. For example, principle 6 states, “No member shall let a ram to anyone who lets or sells his rams at fairs or markets.” The principles, for the most part, helped establish and maintain the society as a monopoly on the members’ breeds. Violating any of the principles resulted in fines, and in more serious cases, expulsion from the society.

The Dishley Society also stipulated prices to be charged for letting rams and bulls. Some of Bakewell’s best sires commanded what some considered to be exorbitant letting prices, but these higher rates attest to the quality of Bakewell’s breeding stock. By the latter part of the eighteenth century, most other British livestock breeders were using Bakewell’s methods. With time his practices became standard procedure, being much the same into the twenty-first century in basic principle.


Bakewell was applying principles consistent with a more modern genetic approach, even though the genetic discoveries of Gregor Mendel were made decades later, and their acceptance came more than a century later. Bakewell’s innovation of breeding in-and-in started a revolution in livestock breeding that paralleled the Industrial Revolution and helped provide food for the newly expanded working class. His scientific methods enabled him to see beyond the unsupported beliefs of other breeders that, for example, inbreeding was detrimental.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Francis, John. “James Cook and Robert Bakewell: Exploration and Animal Breeding in the Eighteenth Century.” Proceedings of the Royal Society Queensland 82 (1971): v-xxvi. An overview especially of Bakewell’s sheep-breeding work and its effect on sheep breeds around the world.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pawson, Henry Cecil. Robert Bakewell, Pioneer Livestock Breeder. London: Crosby Lockwood & Son, 1957. A short overview of Bakewell’s life and accomplishments; about half the book is devoted to copies of some of his letters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stanley, Pat. Robert Bakewell and the Longhorn Breed of Cattle. Ipswitch, England: Farming Press, 1998. Focuses specifically on Bakewell’s work on cattle breeding.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wykes, David L. “Robert Bakewell (1725-1795) of Dishley: Farmer and Livestock Improver.” Agricultural History Review 52 (2004): 38-55. An overview focusing on Bakewell’s success as both a farmer and a livestock breeder, especially of sheep.

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