Bakewell, Robert

Bakewell, Robert
b. 23 May 1725 Loughborough, England
d. 1 October 1795 Loughborough, England
English livestock breeder who pioneered the practice of progeny testing for selecting breeding stock; he is particularly associated with the development of the Improved Leicester breed of sheep.
Robert Bakewell was the son of the tenant farming the 500-acre (200 hectare) Dishley Grange Farm, near Loughborough, where he was born. The family was sufficiently wealthy to allow Robert to travel, which he began to do at an early age, exploring the farming methods of the West Country, Norfolk, Ireland and Holland. On taking over the farm he continued the development of the irrigation scheme begun by his father. Arthur Young visited the farm during his tour of east England in 1771. At that time it consisted of 440 acres (178 hectares), 110 acres (45 hectares) of which were arable, and carried a stock of 60 horses, 400 sheep and 150 other assorted beasts. Of the arable land, 30 acres (12 hectares) were under root crops, mainly turnips.
Bakewell was not the first to pioneer selective breeding, but he was the first successfully to apply selection to both the efficiency with which an animal utilized its food, and its physical appearance. He always had a clear idea of the animal he wanted, travelled extensively to collect a range of animals possessing the characteristics he sought, and then bred from these towards his goal. He was aware of the dangers of inbreeding, but would often use it to gain the qualities he wanted. His early experiments were with Longhorn cattle, which he developed as a meat rather than a draught animal, but his most famous achievement was the development of the Improved Leicester breed of sheep. He set out to produce an animal that would put on the most meat in the least time and with the least feeding. As his base he chose the Old Leicester, but there is still doubt as to which other breeds he may have introduced to produce the desired results. The Improved Leicester was smaller than its ancestor, with poorer wool quality but with greatly improved meat-production capacity.
Bakewell let out his sires to other farms and was therefore able to study their development under differing conditions. However, he made stringent rules for those who hired these animals, requiring the exclusive use of his rams on the farms concerned and requiring particular dietary conditions to be met. To achieve this control he established the Dishley Society in 1783. Although his policies led to accusations of closed access to his stock, they enabled him to keep a close control of all offspring. He thereby pioneered the process now recognized as "progeny testing".
Bakewell's fame and that of his farm spread throughout the country and overseas. He engaged in an extensive correspondence and acted as host to all of influence in British and overseas agriculture, but it would appear that he was an over-generous host, since he is known to have been in financial difficulties in about 1789. He was saved from bankruptcy by a public subscription raised to allow him to continue with his breeding experiments; this experience may well have been the reason why he was such a staunch advocate of State funding of agricultural research.
Further Reading
William Houseman, 1894, biography, Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society. 1–31. H.C.Parsons, 1957, Robert Bakewell (contains a more detailed account).
R.Trow Smith, 1957, A History of British Livestock Husbandry to 1700, London: Routledge \& Kegan Paul.
—A History of British Livestock Husbandry 1700 to 1900 (places Bakewell within the context of overall developments).
M.L.Ryder, 1983, Sheep and Man, Duckworth (a scientifically detailed account which deals with Bakewell within the context of its particular subject).

Biographical history of technology. - Taylor & Francis e-Librar. . 2005.

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