29 Mar 2021

A year in the life of the Balwen sheep at the National Botanic Garden of Wales

Rebecca Thomas

The National Botanic Garden of Wales consists of 568 acres of recently restored heritage landscape, formal garden areas, meadows, woodland and pasture.

Part of this land is designated as Waun Las National Nature Reserve (NNR). In order to manage the NNR to encourage biodiversity a herd of traditional Welsh Black cattle and a flock of Balwen sheep are grazed in the pastures and the meadows. The National Botanic Garden of Wales is the only NNR in Wales to have its own working farm as part of its biodiversity programme.

In the past four years, a flock of Balwen sheep have been introduced as the Welsh sheep breed to graze the fields.

A brief introduction to the Balwen sheep breed  

The History

Balwen sheep are a small, hardy, native breed that originate from the upper Tywi Valley. This is an area of about 50 square miles on the border of Carmarthenshire. During the disastrous winter of 1947, the breed was nearly wiped out with only one ram surviving. Since then, the numbers have very steadily increased. In 1985, the Balwen Welsh Mountain Breed Society was formed and, although numbers still continue to steadily increase, Balwen Welsh Mountain Sheep continue to be on the Rare Breeds Survival Trust’s watch list.

The Markings

Balwen sheep have very attractive markings that make them stand out they are predominantly black/dark brown fleeced although, with age, the fleece can start to show grey streaks. They have a white blaze on their face, the lower two thirds of the tail is white and four white socks. Balwen means white blaze in Welsh. The males are horned and the females are polled (have no horns).

The Hardiness

Balwen sheep are a good hardy breed. They have very thick dense fleeces, up to 30cm deep from the skin. It is very difficult to part the fleece to see the skin as the wool is so dense and the wool also contains a large amount of lanolin which is an oil that deters water. As a result of this, the Balwens are able to thrive in very cold, wet conditions.


Balwens typically have a single lamb in their first lambing year and, in subsequent years, they often go on to have twins. The Balwens are very good mothers and will defend and guard their lambs against any predators or dangers. They produce a good amount of milk and the lambs grow quickly. Lambing traditionally happens in March at the National Botanic Gardens. The weather is still inclined to be harsh but the Balwens are able to cope with this as, when the lambs are born, they already have a thick fleece which enables them to stand the cold and the wet. Balwens are able to successfully lamb outside.

Wool and meat

The wool is a rich dark-brown/black colour. It is graded as soft/medium and is popular with spinners as it is easy to spin.

The lambs grow and fatten quickly due to their mothers’ rich milk and the variety of grazing they are able to access, this creates a beautiful, rich, sweet and tender meat perfect for local restaurants and entertaining and family meals.


Balwen sheep are light-footed and agile. This gives them greater ability to graze fields without poaching the ground. Balwens are efficient grazers and able to graze rough pastures, grasses and sedges that other lowland sheep would avoid eating and still maintain good body condition. The Waun Las National Nature Reserve is an organic farm, due to this there is a wide range of flora that the Balwen sheep are able to graze, which provides a varied beneficial diet. The Balwens are managed within the organic system.


Balwen sheep are full of character. They are quick-witted, independent and incredibly cautious of anything new. They are happy in familiar surroundings and have a terrific memory. Working with Balwens is a two-way relationship and they are always one step ahead. It is, above all, an immense pleasure to see and work with an animal that is incredibly intelligent and integral to the landscape.


Throughout these series of blogs:

The life, character, pleasure and events that unfold in the day-to-day management of the Balwen sheep on the Waun Las National Nature Reserve will be followed and documented. It will include lambing, shearing, weaning and mating together with the benefits that the Balwens bring to the environment and biodiversity of the land. We hope you can follow, as the year in the life Balwen sheep at the National Botanic Garden of Wales begins.