British Sheep Breeds
The Bluefaced Leicester
The Bluefaced Leicester Sheep Breeders Association was formed in 1963 but the breed had been around for many years before that. The Bluefaced Leicester is one of Britain's many indigenous breeds.
Back in 1726, Robert Bakewell was born, the third generation farmer on the family farm at Dishley, Leicestershire. Bakewell was to become a revolutionist in the world of animal breeding and improvement. Bakewell experimented with line-breeding to obtain then 'fix' the characteristics that he wanted in a breed. The Dishley Leicester as it was known as it was known (from Bakewell's farm) was the ancestor of the Bluefaced Leicester. The modern-day Dishley Leicester is often known as the English Leicester.
The Bluefaced Leicester was an English Longwool type. Individual Border Leicesters were appearing with 'blue' faces. The hair on the face was actually white but the underlying skin was a dark blue. These were given the name of Bluefaced Leicester.
During its early development it was concentrated around Hexham in the county of Northumberland in northern England and was known as the Hexham Leicester. Bluefaced Maine and Blue-headed Maine were other names given to the breed.
Bakewell experimented with line-breeding to obtain then 'fix' the characteristics that he wanted in a breed. These methods were unheard of in his day.
The Blue-faced Leicester is popular as a 'crossing' sire. In particular, these rams are bred with native British hill breed ewes. The offspring are known as 'mules' and are renowned as top-class mothers for lambs for the prime lamb market. The Swaledale, Welsh Mountain, Cheviot and Blackface are commonly used to breed mules. It is estimated that mules make up 46% of Britain's crossbred ewe population. It is a wonderful commercial breeding ewe. They are generally mated in their first year and continue to breed for a further six years. Multiple births are the rule, rather than the exception.
Mature Blue-faced Leicester rams weigh around 250 pounds and ewes about 175 pounds. The wool is fine and tightly purled. To enable it to survive in the sometimes harsh climate, it needs to stand squarely on strong legs. The long back is strong and the hindquarters broad and deep. The neck is of good length, the ribs well-sprung and the shoulders broad. The profile is generally slightly convex and the eyes are alert and bright. The ears are long and carried in an erect manner. The dark blue skin should show through the white hair on the head although a small amount of brown is allowable. The sheep has a broad muzzle and a good mouth.
Lambs produced from the Blue-faced Leicester have good length. At birth, they are well covered with a strong will to live. Such vigour helps them withstand adverse conditions without succumbing. Breeding ewes carry two or three embryos without stress and wethers reach acceptable carcass weights in good time. Pure Blue-faced Leicester may have lambing averages of 220% to 250% in good conditions. This trait passes on to mule ewes which easily return lambing rates of over 200%. Fleece weights average 2 to 4.5 pounds and the length of staple is 3 to 5.9 inches.
At the time of the foundation of the Bluefaced Leicester Sheep Breeders Association (1963), the Flock Book was established. The Association's aim is to encourage breeders to continue breeding pure Bluefaced Leicesters. These attractive sheep made their first appearance in Canada in the 1970s and are now also found in the United States, Australia and New Zealand.