ONCE-RARE LLEYN ON ROLL
Lleyns are gaining favour with traditional north country sheep producers.
Jeremy Hunt reports
MANY breeds and crosses have sought to find favour with north country sheep producers. The huge market has proved an irresistible challenge over many years, but few, if any, have failed to shift deep-rooted traditions. But one breed is now gaining ground – the Lleyn.
This small, all-white hornless breed – which found itself on the Rare Breeds Survival Trust list 25 years ago – is now riding on a wave of popularity which is spreading far beyond its native Wales. But although the Lleyn has scattered supporters in the Midlands and southern counties, it is the increasing market among northern flockmasters that now looks set to bring about the most significant development in the breeds history.
Several large flocks are now well established in northern counties, but it is the recent interest shown by dyed-in-the wool Swaledale flock owners that has turned the spotlight on the Lleyn. Among them is John Morton whose family runs the 316ha (780-acre) Bank Hall, Kirkland, near Penrith.
There are now 70 pedigree Lleyn ewes at Bank Hall. The flock was started several years ago with foundation stock bought at the breed societys main sale in Gaerwen. These sheep are now managed alongside 1000 Swaledale ewes and 110 suckler cows.
In September this year the Scotland and Borders Lleyn Sheep Breeders Club, of which Mr Morton is chairman, staged its inaugural sale at Carlisle. The event, which drew around 500 sheep, was viewed with great interest by established breeders, particularly those in Wales.
The sale was a success with prices well in advance of expectations. But apart from establishing new record prices – a shearling ram sold for 2400gns and a pen of ewe lambs from Bank Hall reached 330gns apiece – the enthusiastic reception given to the Lleyn confirmed the growing interest among discerning northern flockmasters.
Around 380 of the Swaledale ewes at Bank Hall are bred pure, the rest are crossed with the Blue-faced Leicester. The Morton family are strong supporters of the North of England Mule and recognise its premier position as a commercial breeding ewe but they believe that the Lleyn has tremendous potential.
The popularity of the Lleyn and its steady expansion in recent years both inside and outside Wales, has been brought about by the consistency it has shown through lambing percentage, mothering ability and milkiness.
"This is a hardy and thrifty breed. Lambing percentage is 200% or above, the ewes are great mothers and terrific milkers," says Mr Morton.
Feed consumption is noticeably less than rations taken by housed Swaledale ewes in the run up to lambing. "You cant fill a Swaledale ewe, but it is quite common to see Lleyn ewes walk away from the trough and leave some feed behind. Our Lleyn ewes will only take 0.5kg a day – thats half what the Swaledales will eat."
Although several flocks both in the north and further afield have produced top-rate commercial ewes successfully by using a Bleu du Maine or Rouge ram on the Lleyn, the expanding demand is for purebred stock.
"The Lleyn ewe as a purebred has all the advantages of a halfbred sheep with the added health benefit of a closed-flock status by retaining females. Purebred wether lambs will adapt to various finishing regimes and have the edge on conformation compared with other native hill breeds."
But with a clear insight into the type of sheep preferred by northern sheepmen, Mr Morton is keen to add some scale and length to the Lleyn. "Sheep producers up here like a bigger sheep and while we dont want to get the Lleyn too big I believe there is scope for change.
"Its not an easy job and it will take time and selection but I believe we can stretch the Lleyn out a bit, maintain good spring of rib and frame and still retain all the qualities, including milk yield."
Heavy stocking rate
He is keenly aware that conformation changes must be subtle and must not undermine the heavier stocking rate achievable with the Lleyn. A rate of 22 Mule ewes a ha (9/acre) could be increased by an extra 5/ha (2/acre) Lleyns with twin lambs, says Mr Morton.
Bank Hall stands at 223m (730ft) in the Eden Valley with land running to 610m (2000ft). Although the Lleyn flock is offered hay during the worst winter weather, ewes will invariably ignore it in preference to grass.
Purebred wether lambs have been consistently making a premium of £5 a head over Mule wethers and ex-farm demand for Lleyn females of all ages has been exceptionally strong this season.
"There have been one or two long-established flocks in Scotland as far north as Aberdeenshire. Yorkshire and Northumberland are two counties where more Lleyns are now being kept. Comparisons will be made with Scottish Blackface and Swaledale, but the Lleyn is a breed that can complement existing flocks rather than compete with long-held tradition."n
These ewe lambs (above) made 330gns a piece for John Morton (right) at the inaugural Lleyn Society sale in Carlisle, Cumbria.
The ewe lambs at Bank Hall Farm eat half the amount of Swaledales, and will have a lambing percentage of 200% or more says Mr Morton.
• 200% lambing percentage.
• Lower feed consumption.
• Can use high stocking rate.