19 February 1999


Are breeders too concerned

with type? Jeremy Hunt and

Robert Davies investigate

SOME Bluefaced Leicester breeders pre-occupation with producing lambs with pretty faces could help the breed gain official recognition as a dam of Mules. But others suspect selective breeding is compromising performance.

Although passing on prolificacy and milking ability, Bluefaced Leicester tup choice is being influenced by progeny of official Mule dams. These include Swaledale and Scottish Blackface whose offspring have striking black and white face markings.

This aesthetical pre-occupation has encouraged some breeders to concentrate on a crossing types which, while adept at producing facially striking ewe lambs, are increasingly considered to be lacking in conformation.

Mule breeders selling at major north country sales place a great deal of importance on the head markings of lambs. These striking looks create instant appeal among buyers.

Although some Bluefaced Leicester breeders have remained loyal to the traditional type, many have moved to the crossing type of a smaller sheep, with long and narrow head, narrow body and often with a jaw posing greater risk of premature dentition faults.

While so called crossing tups may produce pretty lambs, many breeders feel they are putting conformation and mouth characteristics at risk.

Its a controversial issue and one which commercial sheep producers should be alerted to. At least one council member of the Bluefaced Leicester Sheep Breeders Association said anonymously that the breeds influence as a widely-used sire could be jeopardised.

"What we are increasingly seeing are the so-called crossing tups that are very narrow, showing poor conformation and with untypical skins. These sires can put the future of the Mule at risk."

There are widely held beliefs in traditional breeding circles that Teeswater and even Derbyshire Gritstone breeding was introduced at some stage to create a different type. Some breeders say it is easy to detect untypical fleeces in many Mule lambs which show a distinct lack of the pearling hallmark of the Bluefaced Leicester influence.

Commercial Mule lamb buyers, wooed by attractive face markings, are questioning the suitability of this type to modern systems. Mule lambs are reported to only reach four-shear, a marked curtailment in productive life that many expect from Mules.

Willie Woodman, who runs 630 Scottish Blackface ewes and a small flock of Bluefaced Leicesters at Haltwhistle, Northumberland, is concerned over use of crossing tups. He believes they will damage the breeds reputation.

Mule will lose out

"I want a tup with a good carcass, strong legs and a good skin. If the breed does not maintain these characteristics the Mule will lose out," says Mr Woodman.

"Its not about colour on the face its about breeding a female of good conformation that will go on to a be a productive and hard wearing ewe, produce twin lambs and have the milk to feed them." Mr Woodman maintains hes still able to produce smart looking, well-marked lambs from traditional-style tups.

Despite last years lower prices for Mule lambs Mr Woodmans 330 Mule ewe lambs entered at a sale last August averaged £52 each. No wether lambs have been sold off the farm this season weighing less than 44kg.

"People forget that half the Mules they sell are wethers. Ignore conformation and you risk losing the market for the ewe lamb and end up with an inferior prime wether lamb that lacks frame and size," he says.

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