Keeping the faith with the Bluefaced Leicester

They say it’s almost like a religion. But then breeding Bluefaced Leicester sheep has always demanded bucketloads of devotion and passion.

The breed has been at the heart of the Archer family’s farming history for more than 60 years – a period that has seen the “Hexham Leicester” exalted to its present-day status as the most influential breed in the UK sheep sector.

The Carry House flock, now run by Robin Archer and his son Martyn, at Wark, near Hexham, is listed as Flock 281 in the Bluefaced Leicester Sheep Association’s flock book. With more than 3000 flocks now registered, the Archers were among the first to make a commitment to formalising the existence of the breed when post-war visionaries set up the association.

It was 47 years ago that Robin Archer and his wife Margaret took the tenancy of Low Carry House, an upland farm owned by the Duke of Northumberland.

Although Swaledales have been introduced in recent years, it is the Blackface that rules. And it was the way Bluefaced Leicester tups weaved their magic on the indomitable Blackies of Northumberland that gave the first hint of the breed’s true breeding ability through the reputation gained by its female Mule progeny.

To produce, from a horned ewe, a commercial female sheep that was prolific, excelled as a doting mother and milked like a cow, must have been like manna from heaven for farmers making a living from the Northumberland hills. Suddenly they found themselves with the two essential ingredients – Blackface ewes and Bluefaced Leicester tups – of a commodity that was poised to change the face of British prime lamb production.

But greatness always comes at a price, and there’s no denying the Bluefaced Leicester isn’t the easiest of sheep to manage. Robin Archer can still raise a smile when he remembers arriving at Low Carry House in 1961 full of expectations with one Bluefaced Leicester ewe and two gimmer lambs. The first livestock death on the farm was one of those ewe lambs – a reminder of the breed’s challenges.

“Bluefaced Leicesters demand more careful management than other breeds – but that’s part of their fascination,” says Mr Archer.

bluefaced leicester

The breed has changed a great deal in the last 50 years, and so have its Mule progeny. Up to the 1970s, the Bluefaced Leicester was of a type now widely referred to as traditional – typified by the sheep’s blue head and fine skin. These bloodlines are still sought after for those aspiring to win in the show ring and farmers producing Mules from white-faced breeds such as the Cheviot, Exmoor Horn Welsh Mountain and, most recently, the Texel.

Superior bloodlines

But during the 1970s, Bluefaced Leicester sheep – now regarded as the crossing type – were developed from bloodlines identified as those producing superior Mule gimmer lambs from Swaledale and Blackface ewes.

Like other breeders, the Archers began working backwards, selecting tups from those producing strong Mules carrying a lighter jacket and with distinct face colour. These were the sheep most in demand from commercial buyers.

Brown spots, considered taboo among traditional breeders, began to appear on sheep from some of these new crossing bloodlines. They have now been accepted, and although not a hallmark of the crossing type, any tups showing this colour are often the most favoured among Swaledale and Blackface flock owners producing Mule lambs.

The Archers have two flocks in one – each based on separate lines to breed both the traditional and crossing types. But the fact that there are only 15 traditional ewes left in the Carry House flock, while the crossing section has expanded to 50 ewes, gives an indication of where the demand for tups lies.

Low Carry House, with extra rented land at Bellingham, carries 65 pedigree Bluefaced Leicesters, 700 Blackface and Swaledale ewes – all bred to produce Mules – as well as a flock of 100 Mules. The farm produces about 550 Mule gimmer lambs each year.

“A Mule that meets the demands of the commercial prime lamb producer will always be our benchmark,” says Robin Archer. “The present market wants a Mule with a better carcass and with less wool. Our Bluefaced Leicesters have to do that.”

The first Mules to top a sale made £10 a head at Bellingham in the late 1960s. A little more than 20 years later, the flock was selling gimmer lambs at £92 – a reflection of the rapid rise to prominence of the north of England Mule as its reputation spread among the lowland buyers in the midlands and southern counties.

But the sudden rise in popularity of the Mule did have its drawbacks, says Martyn Archer. “I still believe the insatiable demand meant even lower quality end sheep were sold for breeding and this didn’t do the breed any favours in the long term,” he adds.

Martyn thinks the tide may now be turning as lowland breeders realise that the few pence/kg premium they might earn from lambs out of home-bred flock replacements is outweighed by the extra prolificacy and ease of management they could achieve by producing prime lambs out of Mules.

“The extra shepherding required to deal with difficult lambings, more foot problems and heavy-type ewes by terminal sire breeds that easily get stuck on their backs, are difficult to justify,” he says. “And any single lamb produced in a lowland flock – compared to twins – is a definite loss-maker in today’s market.”

A significant turning point for the traditional Carry House flock came with the use of two huge tups in the mid-1980s. One had been bought back by the Archers after being sold as a lamb to Dick Clark at Mosser Mains, west Cumbria, and the other was a five-shear tup from the Posty flock bought at Builth Wells.

“They both did a great job for us putting tremendous carcass shape and size into their lambs,” recalls Robin. In their first crop, tup lambs sold for £3600 and £4000 (twice). A new era had dawned for the Archers. All the present traditional flock traces back to these two tups.

There have been many influential tups used at Low Carry House, but as Martyn says: “This is a breed that for every three tups you buy, there will probably be only one that comes up to the mark.”

Among some of the other notable tups used in the traditional section were tups from the Eliza flock in Co Durham, the Walton flock at Brampton, Cumbria, and the Jerriestown flock at Carlisle.

Best buys

Those that left a stamp on the crossing flock included a £2600 Shafthill tup lamb bought in the mid-1990s,

who passed on the darker brown colour that is still distinctive within the flock today.

Robin and Martyn almost bought a tup that was to become one of the breed’s greats. Nunscleugh N25 made £4000 when he was sold at Carlisle. The Archers pulled out of the bidding that day, but have since used the tup through AI.

Recent years have seen one of the best crops of tup lambs from the traditional section of the flock, sired by a home-bred tup that wasn’t sold due to foot-and-mouth movement restrictions. The following autumn, his 13 sons averaged £1446 at Hexham – and one made the flock’s highest-ever price of £6400 – a Hexham record. The buyer, Myrfyn Roberts of the Myfyrian flock on Anglesey, has since enjoyed considerable success at the Royal Welsh Show with this tup’s progeny.

Bluefaced Leicester breeders are often goaded with the notion that to be successful in this breed, you need a “sharp spade and a short memory”. Robin Archer defends the breed’s reputation, but acknowledges that the Bluefaced Leicester does need more care than other breeds.”Flocks are numerically small because they are a demanding breed,” he says. “You’ve got to be prepared to spend time with them and watch them carefully at lambing. Lambs are born with little wool and ewes and lambs need to come inside at night for several weeks after lambing and be in sheltered fields by day.

“It is ironic that, despite all of this, the Mule’s reputation is based on its ease of management. There is nothing straightforward about breeding Bluefaced Leicesters. Everyone knows it’s a complex business, but this is a breed that gets under your skin.”

The flock now has its own web-site and performance recording has been introduced to meet the growing demand among younger buyers for tups with figures. AI is used across the entire flock to enable the continued use of semen from a wide range of tups. This year’s crop of lambs has eight different sires – among them Carry House X Factor, who is producing some of the flock’s best-ever and purebred lambs.