Robert Bakewell (agriculturalist)

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Robert Bakewell

Robert Bakewell (23 May 1725 – 1 October 1795) was an English agriculturalist, now recognized as one of the most important figures in the British Agricultural Revolution. In addition to work in agronomy, Bakewell is particularly notable as the first to implement systematic selective breeding of livestock. His advancements not only led to specific improvements in sheep, cattle and horses, but contributed to general knowledge of artificial selection.[1]

Early life[edit]

Robert Bakewell, the second eldest son,[2] was born on 23 May 1725 at Dishley Grange, near Loughborough in Leicestershire. As a young man he travelled extensively in Europe and Britain, learning about other farming methods. Others interested in his work included Prince Grigory Potemkin and François de la Rochefoucauld (1765–1848).

He supported his revolutionary new breeding techniques with grassland irrigation, flooding and fertilizing pasturelands to improve grazing. He taught these practices to many farmers, and in 1783 formed The Dishley Society to promote them and to advance the interests of livestock breeders. His apprentices and contemporaries, especially Thomas Coke, 1st Earl of Leicester, used his methods to continue improvements to British livestock long after his death in October 1795.[1]


Arguably the most influential of Bakewell's breeding programs was with sheep. Using native stock, he was able to quickly select for large, yet fine-boned sheep, with long, lustrous wool. The Lincoln Longwool was improved by Bakewell, and in turn the Lincoln was used to develop the subsequent breed, named the New (or Dishley) Leicester. It was hornless and had a square, meaty body with straight top lines.[3]

These sheep were exported widely, including to Australia and North America, and have contributed to numerous modern breeds, despite the fact that they fell quickly out of favour as market preferences in meat and textiles changed. Bloodlines of these original New Leicesters survive today as the English Leicester (or Leicester Longwool), which is primarily kept for wool production.


He crossed long-horned heifers and a Westmoreland bull to eventually create the Dishley Longhorn. As more and more farmers followed his lead, farm animals increased dramatically in size and quality. In 1700, the average weight of a bull sold for slaughter was 370 pounds (168 kg). By 1786, that weight had more than doubled to 840 pounds (381 kg) [citation needed]. However, after his death, the Dishley Longhorn was replaced with short-horn versions.


Robert Bakewell bred the Improved Black Cart horse, which later became a Shire horse.[4]


Several buildings in Loughborough are named after Bakewell including a hall of residence at Loughborough University and a primary school in the town.[5]

Influence on Darwin[edit]

Selective breeding, which Charles Darwin described as artificial selection, was an inspiration for his theory of natural selection. In On the Origin of Species he cited Bakewell's work as demonstrating variation under domestication, in which methodical breeding during Bakewell's lifetime led to considerable modification of the forms and qualities of his cattle, and the unconscious production of two distinct strains when two flocks of Leicester sheep were kept by Mr. Buckley and Mr. Burgess, "purely bred from the original stock of Mr. Bakewell for upwards of fifty years"[6] with the unanticipated result that "the difference between the sheep possessed by these two gentlemen is so great that they have the appearance of being quite different varieties."[7]

New Dishley Society[edit]

The New Dishley Society has been created to promote the memory of Robert Bakewell and of his contemporaries and students of his methods.[8] The society aims to disseminate knowledge of his work and appreciation of his pioneering legacy in the breeding of improved farm livestock and better crop management. It supports research into the revolutionary agricultural techniques of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and into the men who developed these techniques.


Bakewell's pioneering and extremely aggressive use of breeding in-and-in may have contributed to the spread of prionic diseases, such as scrapie, among livestock of the region.[9][10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Chisholm 1911.
  2. ^ gravestones of Bakewell family at Dishley church
  3. ^ "Robert Bakewell (1725 - 1795)". BBC History. Retrieved 20 July 2012.
  4. ^ Angelique. "Shire Horse". The Livestock Conservancy. Retrieved 2022-02-02.
  5. ^ "Robert Bakewell - Loughborough Students' Union". Retrieved 2023-09-10.
  6. ^ Youatt, W. (1837). Sheep: Their Breeds, Maintenance, and Diseases. London: Baldwin and Cradock. p. 315. quoted in On the Origin of Species, p. 30
  7. ^ Youatt 1837, p. 315.
  8. ^ The New Dishley Society. Retrieved 13 June 2009
  9. ^ Max, D. T. (2006). The Family That Couldn't Sleep: A Medical Mystery. Random House. ISBN 978-1-4000-6245-4. As soon as scrapie broke out in [Reverend Thomas] Comber's district and the surrounding areas, aristocrats pointed a finger at Bakewell and his breeding practices.
  10. ^ Kelleher, Colm A. (2004). Brain Trust: The Hidden Connection Between Mad Cow and Misdiagnosed Alzheimer's Disease. Simon and Schuster. One of the best-known and earliest descriptions of the symptoms in sheep came from the Reverend Thomas Comber in England in 1772, ...