Ben Thorpe’s family have farmed Lonk sheep for as long as anyone can remember. The sheep pre-date the industrial upheaval of the late 1700s, when the Rossendale quarries of Lancashire were famous for providing the flagstones for Trafalgar Square. It is difficult to imagine, standing on Ben’s farm at 1400 feet on a blustery November day, that these green hills were once a landscape of cranes, refuse pits, coal mines and stone quarries.

Stone is inextricably linked to the history of the Lonk. Ben and his father Andrew tell me that over the hill in the Cowm Valley, sheep pens constructed of stone slabs set vertically into the ground still stand, a testament to the husbandry of Mr Parker, credited with bringing the Lonk breed to wider recognition. “That’s why they are called Lonks,” says Andrew, “Because the hardest stone in the quarry was the Lonkey stone, so hard that for centuries no-one could work it. And they used to say the only thing harder than Lonkey stone was the Lonk sheep.”

A powerful hill sheep, horned with a black and white marked face (“Not too much white,” says Ben) and a dense yet fine fleece to see off the weather, Lonks are supremely hardy. Despite his family connections to the Lonk, Ben had tried several other breeds before purchasing a small flock from his father in 2009, culling hard over the years to get the type that he was looking for. When l ask him what it is about the Lonks that is so special he says simply: “They survive.” 

A few miles away at Pendleton Hall, brothers Robert and James Whitwell farm much kinder land, but have an equally strong family connection to the Lonk. They run a flock of 750 ewes and have cross bred them in the past, both to a Texel to produce fat lambs, and to a Bluefaced Leicester to give a strong half-bred breeding ewe. Now they only breed pure, achieving good prices for their rams at the Society sales at Clitheroe and a ready trade for lambs and breeding sheep.

Lonks are not currently rare, but RBST is keeping a watching brief as big breeders like James and Robert are only too aware of how precarious the breed’s position is. A handful of breeders bought the majority of good rams at the last sale, and three large flocks account for most of the annual registrations. Another Foot and Mouth outbreak could spell disaster for the Lonk, and Society Chairman Rod Spence is keen to see the breed’s attributes more widely recognised.

Rod is building a butchery on his farm in the Forest of Bowland, next door to the renowned eatery, The Inn at Whitewell. Spurred on by demand for his lamb and beef from the Inn and other local restaurants, he explains that Lonk lamb has superb eating qualities, being fine-grained and naturally lean with a great flavour. It also produces a large carcass, with lambs easily finished to 50kg, producing a 24kg carcass from grass. Lonk lamb gained a boost in 2009 when Michelin-starred local chef Nigel Haworth won the Great British Menu with his Lonk Lamb Lancashire Hotpot, and Rod was approached to supply lamb to a range of local customers. 

There is no doubt that the Lonk has a loyal following, and looking at these smart, strong, hardy sheep I can see why. Now their only challenge is to share the breed’s powerful story a little further afield.

The Lonk Sheep Breeders Association at