Photo credit: Meredith Myers-Null, BlueLand Farm, MD.
Originally published in The Shepherd magazine. Written by Margie Smith, PA
Have you ever seen a “glow” and thought it must be an angel? Have you ever seen that glow in a pasture? Well, one sunny day in 2007, while viewing Nancy Starkey’s flock of Border Leicesters, there amidst the 20 or more yearlings she had, was one that absolutely glowed. It took my breath away then and it still does now.
After seeing this wonderful yearling, I knew I had to add her to my flock. She wasn’t a Border Leicester but her fleece was so shimmery, that I knew I wanted it in my genetics. This ewe was named Gwen and she was the start of my love affair with Bluefaced Leicesters!
Since 2007, I’ve added plenty more to my flock – many with the Beechtree farm name in their backgrounds, some with Bolton, some with Potosi, some with Wit’s End and a couple with Fox Hollow. It took a conglomeration of BFL sheep to get where Marlindale farm is today. I began with trying to create that shimmery lock in all my sheep. The farms mentioned above, all had a bit of what I was looking for – basically, to create a mirror image of Gwen with thicker fleece. In 2016, I felt I had arrived at that place – all my flock shimmered in the sun! Most of my flock now, are my own breeding – but it took several years to get there! So, the next step was to increase the meatiness of the body. Although most of my lambs and culled ewes don’t go for meat, I still wanted to create a dual purpose sheep – with a shimmery fleece being top priority.
You may want to know why fleece and why a shimmer? Well, if I had only wanted a meat sheep, I could go back to raising Suffolk or Hampshire sheep – the two breeds I began with in 1982. By 1992, I was disappointed that I was literally throwing my fleeces in the dump – there was no purpose for them and I didn’t know anyone who wanted them. In 1996, I changed from the Suffolk/Hampshire crosses to Montadales – a dual purpose breed. They weren’t great either in fleece or meat, so I tried Border Leicesters. I loved the breed, but again their fleeces weren’t quite what I was looking for. Then I saw Gwen and the rest is history! Well, maybe not quite. I still had my Border Leicesters – so I crossed them. What we produced was wonderful – the lambs and fleeces sold very well. However, over the next couple of years, I saw the fleeces of the BFL in the show ring diminishing. What was being shown, by my standards for fleece, was disappointing. I did my fair share of complaining – so much so, that even I couldn’t stand myself. So, what did I do? I sold the crossbreds and went entirely to BFL – either I had to put up or shut up, so I decided to create what I thought should be the best BFL there was. So, why put fleece as my top priority – because the meat breeds don’t have quality fleeces, and the BFL breeders had gotten away from the shimmery fleece. That is why!
I met with many handspinners, knitters and weavers. I asked questions, went to see mills of yarns , went to see what the BFL yarn looked like when it had been worked into a finished project. In all I saw, the yarns that kept my attention were the ones that shimmered. Some of them were from my flock, some were not – but all were BFL! I knew that shimmer was an eye-catcher, but so was the length of lock as well as the crimp and strength of each fiber. I knew what I needed to work towards.
Other than importing ewes and rams from select flocks, how do I get the quality Marlindale has now? Many factors go into this- obviously genetics is first. Next is nutrition – I’ve worked hard to have quality grazing with only 2.5 acres of land. That has been a many year trial and error! We also purchase grain from a local mill, so I know exactly what is in the mix and the mill owner works hard to help me maintain high quality feed. We try to provide medium quality grass hay, but sometimes that has been difficult since we don’t grow our own – which is why a high quality feed mix was so important to us. Finally, we keep the sheep covered with modified Rocky’s Sheep Sheets (we use his sheets and add a turtleneck to them) – pretty much all year long. It is a labor of love – a 250 ram or wether does not like having their hind feet raised to be put through leg straps! The sheep sheets get rotated and changed as the sheep grow and/or their fleeces grow. We shear in early spring or late winter – just prior to lambing. The bred ewes will not be covered until their lambs are about a month old – that way we don’t lose lambs from getting caught in leg straps (another disaster we once had and don’t want to repeat).
I can’t complete this article without also saying I’ve had wonderful mentors along the journey. One of my first mentors, was this young woman who had only been shearing professionally for about a year – you may know her – Emily Chamelin! Emily saw my crossbreds of Border Leicester to Bluefaced Leicester and loved the crimp, the shimmer and the length. She encouraged me to show the fleeces at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival – we’ve been doing it ever since! Next, Nancy Starkey – I can’t tell you how many hours she’s spent on the phone with me over genetics and health questions. There have been many others since Nancy and Emily including the Frederick County Sheep Breeders’ Association. Kelly Cole (a meat producer) was always there to help with disease control and the Scrapies program. I’ve worked with my vet (we actually had a couple of cases one year of death due to copper deficiency!), and the state vet – keeping my sheep in the federal programs.
So, it hasn’t been ALL about fleece – but…… fleece is where it started and where I hope to continue as long as I’m producing BFL sheep!
The BLU board is accepting applications for show venues for the 2020 BFL National Show. Please contact any board member to make suggestions for the venue. There is an proposal form available which covers many of the questions, requirements, and considerations to be made when choosing a site for the show. It should be completed and submitted to the breed secretary, listed on the form.
This article was originally published in The Shepherd Magazine. Written by Katie Sullivan, Vermont
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.
This article was originally published in The Shepherd Magazine. Written by Carol Densmore, Cross Wind Farm, Michigan.
Learning to spin opened the door to the fiber arts world and led to the rediscovery of the hard work and farm life that I grew up in. As a hand spinner I knew I couldn’t live without some type of fiber producing livestock. And after a five-year stint of raising alpacas my search led to sheep. Then, I had a huge decision to make. What breed?
After extensive breed research I was no closer to a decision. Each breed had its pros and cons. But once I laid eyes on Bluefaced Leicesters in 2007 the decision was made. The clean face and legs, Roman nose, and the distinct wool sealed the deal. And we’ve had BFLs ever since.
The wool is an important feature but as shepherds the other aspects of the breed are also very important to my husband and I. The large size was just what we wanted, as it ensures the biggest possible fleece the breed can offer. Compared to other breeds the BFLs do not have a hefty fleece—usually between three and five pounds—so the large size of the animal helps produce as much wool as possible. Some of the BFL wethers in my fiber flock produce the biggest fleeces. And because the face, neck, legs, and belly does not have any wool, it is a huge advantage and time saver when I shear, although I didn’t know it until we later introduced other longwool breeds.
The wool itself is the best of all worlds. As a longwool you get the advantage of the long distinct locks that easily separate and are great for tail or core spinning yarn. On the fine-coarse spectrum BFL is the finest of the longwool breeds. With an average micron count of 24 -28 BFL wool is next to skin soft while maintaining its strong and durable traits. The tightly purled locks also add great texture to yarn or felted items.
Currently we have 25 registered BFLs in our flock. That results in more fleeces than I want to hand process or have mill processed. Luckily, selling the fleeces is never a problem. They are sought after by many people ranging from fiber artists, wool enthusiasts, spinners, and felters. I’m contacted on a regular basis from people looking to purchase BFL fleeces. The feedback I receive about BFL wool is always positive. It’s a good basic wool that’s easy to work with and on the soft end of the spectrum.
In my years raising and shearing BFLs I’ve noted a few reasons people gravitate to the wool. Even with a wide assortment of beautifully dyed, ready-to-use BFL wool that is available at festivals and online, there is still a segment of the fiber community that loves starting their projects from raw fleece; and for those, BFL is one of their top choices. The fleece size is very manageable. A four- to five-pound fleece is enough to create a garment like a sweater or several accessories. With the fine, denser locks a BFL fleece is easy to handle when washing as opposed to a fleece of the same weight that has wider, finer, or more voluminous locks. The smaller BFL fleeces are sought after by people who only need a couple of pounds because they are blending it with another fiber or want to use the individual locks for jewelry, felted pieces, and spinning textured yarns.
People who buy my fleeces comment that they like BFL because the staple length of three to six inches is great for many projects such as spinning woolen and worsted yarn, blending with exotic fibers, or using the purled locks to accent felted pieces. The dye pots are also a popular place for BFL because of its semi-lustrous characteristic. BFL takes dye beautifully either as locks or a combed or carded preparation. And the soft hand and beautiful drape you get is always an attraction.
I find that hand processing my own BFL fleeces produces a softer product. Combing is my preferred method which produces a lovely worsted or semi-worsted yarn. Starting the combing process from the tightly purled locks can be a bit tricky. The thin locks tend to slip between the tines of my combs. But to avoid this challenge, I prepare a carded batt first then comb the batt. Works like a charm!
A few years after we bought our starter BFL flock we introduced Lincoln Longwools, Romneys, and Border Leicesters. With the crossing abilities of the BFL ram we achieved great results breeding them with the other purebred longwools. The size, good fiber, and vigor in the crossbred lambs make them prime candidates for my fiber flock or valuable market lambs. My fiber flock keeps growing with BFL wethers, BFL crossbreds, and BFL ewes whose breeding time has come to an end.
Even though the purebred BFLs stand out in the flock with their erect ears, alert eyes, and commanding stance, all of our sheep are touched by BFL genetics and many have it running through their veins. We’d have it no other way.
It is time for 2019 dues to be paid. Please complete a work order, make out the check to BLU, and mail it to ASR at the address posted on our website. You can also print a copy of the work order there. It’s important to pay your dues within the 60 day grace period at the beginning of each year so that you take full advantage of the benefits of membership. Only paid members will remain on the list of members provided on the website, and are able to vote in elections.
The BLU board election is completed. Our incoming President is Katie Sullivan of Vermont, beginning her term on January 1st. Elected to his first term on the board is Paul Genge (Washington): and re-elected to the board are Margaret VanCamp (Michigan) and Kat Bierkens of Oregon. Please join me in congratulating them. A heartfelt thank you to outgoing board members Rose Schmidt- Landin(Wisconsin) and Karen Szewc(Oregon) .The first board meeting of 2019 is scheduled for early January. Please contact any board member if you have an item for the agenda. The site for the 2020 BFL National Show will be discussed at this meeting.
Blueland Farm, owned by BLU Vice-President Meredith Myers-Null and husband,Dan. Read the entire article here: