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By BLU president Katie Sullivan, VT. Originally published in The Shepherd Magazine.
It took a few years and some mistakes to come around to the Bluefaced Leicester.
I started out with five mutt sheep that cost $250 total. A combination of Montadale and Corriedale, they had nice wool from their Corriedale ancestry and great meat frame size from the Montadale side. But finding a matching ram? Impossible. I used several Cormo rams in pursuit of fine fleece, but struggled to maintain other traits. Soon, I had an unruly gang of sheep of all shapes and sizes and no way to effectively breed them into uniformity in a reasonable timeframe.
It was plainly time to find a consistent animal who would deliver delicious lamb and highly desirable wool. Being accustomed to selling Cormo, I wasn’t really keen to have to convince my customers that they were going to love something rough or primitive. Since every ewe can produce $100 or more of wool value, well marketed, it seemed a waste to consider hair breeds. On the other extreme, finewool breeds do not thrive in our damp climate and with land prices in our area being high, I knew I would need a breed that would produce twins and triplets reliably. I had noticed that many producers in our area did not consider carcass economics carefully, choosing breeds that finished at weights too light to be economical where slaughter costs more than $100 per animal.
The Bluefaced Leicester (BFL) checked boxes that other breeds didn’t. They are fairly large and finish at a larger size than many breeds favored by hobbyists. They provide tender meat and incredible length of loin, increasing the proportion of the most desirable cuts. BFL ewes can carry lambs from the largest terminal sires with ease. My BFL ewes are so milky that I am struggling to dry them off after four month’s lactation. Their lambs are enormous and well-conformed.
On the wool side, I’ve discovered that every beginning spinner is sent out seeking BFL fiber to spin. Yarn buyers and felters appreciate the tightly purled curl and silky sheen of BFL. The fiber blends well with precious fibers, offering shiny, drapey yarns that flatter the wearer.
Most importantly, BFLs were one of the last breeds imported to the US as live animals, meaning that BFLs in North America were not bred up from a parent breed. While genetics got a little tight in the ‘90’s, the importation of a dozen diverse, award-winning sires from the UK during the 2000’s has made the breed gene pool wide and healthy again. Almost every ewe in my flock has a champion UK ram in the third or fourth generation.
Other shepherds sometimes ding me by accusing the BFL of being too delicate. Mine have proven as hardy as any other sheep and have weathered Northern Vermont winters with ease. They want a little supplementation to stay in tip-top condition, sure, but when you compare their productivity with that of an unimproved breed, you quickly realise that a small grain bill isn’t a big price to pay for vigorous twins, valuable wool and long, large carcasses in the locker.