Descendents of Robert Bakewell’s improved Dishley Leicester, the Bluefaced Leicester evolved near Hexham in Northumberland, England, in the late 1800s to early 1900s. Classified as a Longwool breed, it is one of three Leicester sheep breeds: the English Leicester Longwool, the Border Leicester, and the Bluefaced Leicester.
It has the finest fleece of the three Leicester breeds, and the softest fleece of all Longwool breeds. It is also known by the name Hexham Leicester.
The primitive English Leicester Longwool
There had been a “Longwool” in England since the early Middle Ages, but it was in a primitive stage, with a fleece that could be compared to today’s Romney.
It was a slow maturing, coarse sheep with a poor carcass for meat. Its wool was highly prized, but it was not a very efficient producer of lamb or mutton. The focus was on wool production over meat production at this time in history.
As time went on, major changes in sheep breeding and keeping practices would shift the emphasis away from fleece quality towards meat production. The historian M.L. Ryder suggests that at least in Britain, wool would never again receive the attention it did during the Middle Ages. The shift would be toward coarser fleece, longer fleece (length), and focus on sheep that would “fatten” more quickly.
The Medieval Longwool would slowly evolve from its primitive stage toward the type of sheep we now associate with “true longwool type.” It became the “Old” English Leicester Longwool.
Robert Bakewell and the “New Improved Leicester”
Robert Bakewell (1725-1795) of Dishley Grange, Loughborough, Leicestershire, was a genius livestock breeder for his time. He is known for his work with horses, cattle, and especially sheep.
During the 1750s, he used Mugs (Teeswater), Old English Leicester Longwool (considered unimproved), and quite possibly Old Ryeland, and other local sheep types to create his “Improved Dishley Leicester.” This sheep was known by many other names including “Dishley Leicester,” “Improved Leicester” and “New Leicester.”
The Dishley Leicester was a faster maturing animal with much better gains for meat, and a superior ability to create excellent crossbreds and improve sheep stock overall.
Due to Bakewell’s idea to “let rams” (lease his rams out) to anyone who could pay, it wasn’t long before the Dishley Leicester was extremely popular throughout Britain and beyond. This gave Bakewell a unique opportunity to “breed test” many more rams than he could do at home himself. It enabled him to make improvements more quickly.
With the help of friends, local farmers, his community connections and congregation, his livestock was spread far and wide. In this way, the Dishley Leicester was extensively used to improve many other sheep breeds, and to create new ones.
Robert Bakewell’s Dishley Leicester or “Improved Leicester” paved the way for the Leicester Longwool as a breed. It was from this point that the Old English Leicester Longwool was significantly improved, and developed further into today’s modern English Leicester Longwool.
The Culley brothers and the Border Leicester
As the popularity of Robert Bakewell and his livestock grew, he gathered a following of students who wished to learn more about his breeding and farming methods.
Among the most famous of his students were the brothers Matthew and George Culley. In the late 1760s they used Bakewell’s improved Dishley Leicester rams, Mugs (or Teeswater) ewes, and quite possibly the Cheviot to create a new breed, the Border Leicester.
Matthew and George Culley were living and working in Fenton, Glendale (Northumberland) at this time, and they were frequent visitors to Dishley Grange. The Border Leicester breed was well established by 1850. A beautiful, hardy and well-tempered breed with a lustrous fleece, it still enjoys great popularity to this day.
Today, the North American, Australian and New Zealand Border Leicesters tend not to have the extreme upright “rabbit ears” of the British Border Leicesters.
A word about the Wensleydale breed
In 1839, “Bluecap” was born in East Appleton, North Yorkshire. He was the offspring of a Dishley Leicester ram and a Mugs ewe (Teeswater). He was a large and vigorous ram with dark blue (nearly black) skin and fine, white, long wool. He was well known and widely used, and was considered by many to be the best ram in Northern England at the time.
Bluecap would found the Wensleydale breed, without further additions of Leicester blood. This was another breed that was primarily used as a crossing breed on Hill ewes, such as the Swaledale. The first generation cross of a Wensleydale ram and a Hill ewe is called a “Masham.”
The Wensleydale breed is unique in the sheep world because it can trace its lineage to a single, well-documented foundation sire.
The birth of the Bluefaced Leicester breed
Finally, in the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, the Bluefaced Leicester breed came into being.
It was primarily from the “Old” Border Leicester stock that the Bluefaced Leicester was created. Border Leicester individuals with darker skin pigment and finer fleece were selected, and these became the base for the new breed. Also, the white-fleeced, blue-skinned Wensleydale was likely used in the early development of the Bluefaced Leicester.
The Bluefaced Leicester was originally created as a “crossing breed.” Its primary job was to produce high-quality crossbred ewes from the native draft or Hill breed ewes. It was discovered that a darker skinned ram, with a finer wool produced a better crossbred ewe from these Hill ewes.
This first generation cross is traditionally called the “Mule.” Some of the most popular breeds used for the production of Mule ewes in the UK are the Scottish Blackface, Swaledale, Beulah, Welsh Mountain, Cheviot, and Clun Forest.
From its original home in the Northern Pennines, the Bluefaced Leicester spread throughout England, Scotland, and Wales, and into Northern Ireland. It eventually replaced the Teeswater breed as the “premier crossing sire.” At one time the Bluefaced Leicester was called “The Great Improver,” following in the footsteps of its ancestor, the Dishley Leicester.
The BFL Association in the United Kingdom
Dedicated breeders in the United Kingdom eventually came together and organized The Bluefaced Leicester Sheep Breeders’ Association. They published their first national flock book in 1964, beginning with sheep registered in 1963.
Today, the Bluefaced Leicester is fundamental in the 3-tier breeding system. It produces the majority of commercial ewes in the UK, and therefore maintains significant economic importance.
Visit the UK Association at this link: