Robert Bakewell was born in 1725
on a farm in Dishley, Leicestershire
. He followed in his father's footsteps as a wealthy tenant farmer, but before taking over the farm when his father died in 1760
, Bakewell traveled throughout Europe
learning about farming practices. Due to the Enclosure Movement
and the Industrial Revolution
, a higher number of people in Britain were buying their food rather than raising it, and Bakewell wanted to take advantage of the new markets.
Most meat before Bakewell came from animals that had been kept for plow-pulling, milk, or wool until they were too old to be useful. Not surprisingly, then, their meat was not the tastiest. Bakewell was one of the first people to breed quick-maturing animals for tender meat, so that he could feed them for a shorter period and sell them for a good price. He was very careful in growing food for the cattle, sheep, and his draft horses; unlike many English farmers of the time, he both irrigated and manured his fields, as well as trying different crops to make sure the animals were well-fed all year round. He also built special stalls for his cattle which allowed them to stand on raised platforms, with their droppings falling into ditches at the side; not standing in manure was probably better for both the cattle's health and the people who cleaned out the stalls.
But Bakewell is best known for his selective breeding. He started his cattle breeding program with two heifers and a bull, chosen because they were the best examples of the traits he was looking for. Then he bred offspring and parents together to reinforce the traits such as increased meat yield, and got rid of any that did not live up to his standard. This was a far cry from previous methods, which did not allow related animals to breed if it could be avoided. But Bakewell's methods succeeded and were adopted by others (especially since he would lease out his best male animals to other farms to sire more of the high-quality strain). In 1710 the average weight of cattle at Britain's Smithfield Market was 370 pounds; in 1795, the year of Bakewell's death, it was 800 pounds. It's been said that without Bakewell's methods, there would not have been enough meat to feed the expanding population of the Industrial Revolution.
Bakewell attracted the attention of George III, who was interested in agriculture to the point of being nicknamed "Farmer George," and the two met in person -- big achievement for a tenant farmer! Bakewell also established the Dishley Society in 1783 to protect the purity of his Leicester sheep breed; he gave members a list of rules to follow to breed proper Leicesters, and this was one of the first predecessors to modern breed associations. His work on breeding also provided ideas to be used in the next century by Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel.
Carlson, Laurie Wynn. Cattle: An Informal Social History. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001.