Bakewell was an 18th century English agriculturalist who introduced stockbreeding methods that transformed the quality of Britain's cattle, horses and sheep.
Robert Bakewell was born near Loughborough in Leicestershire into a family of tenant farmers. As a young man he travelled extensively in Europe, learning about other farming methods. On his return home he served his apprenticeship under his father until he took control of the farm in 1760 when his father died. One quarter of the farm was given over to arable farming, with the rest set aside for grass. Bakewell pioneered grassland irrigation, diverting rivers and building canals to flood the fields, and establishing experimental plots to test different manure and flooding methods.
However, Bakewell's great innovation was to begin breeding 'in-and-in'. Previously livestock of both sexes were kept together in the fields with random breeding resulting in many different breeds with their own unique, but random, characteristics. Bakewell separated males from females, allowing mating only deliberately and specifically. Furthermore, by inbreeding his livestock he fixed and exaggerated those traits he thought were desirable.
He started with the old Lincolnshire breed of sheep that he turned into the New Leicester. These sheep were big and delicately boned, had good quality fleece and fatty fore quarters, in keeping with the popular taste for fatty shoulder mutton. He also began the practice of hiring out his prize rams to farmers to improve their own stock. He established the Dishley Society to maintain the purity of the New Leicester breed, but after his death taste in meat changed and the New Leicester consequently died out. Newer breeds retain a lineage that is founded on Bakewell's sheep.
With cattle, Bakewell had noticed that the Longhorn breed appeared to be the most efficient meat producers. They ate less and put on more weight than any other breed. As with the sheep, he began breeding in-and-in to enhance their characteristics and enable him to 'grow' more meat, more efficiently. By the time he had finished, his cattle were fat and meaty but, like the New Leicester sheep, the Longhorns went out of fashion when one of his apprentices, Charles Colling, created the shorthorn breed. While few cattle today are based on Bakewell's breeds, his methods have become accepted practice world-wide.
Bakewell died in October 1795.