Mules and Half Breds are the most common type of sheep in the country and make up a large majority of our commercial flocks. They are good mothers and can carry twins, triplets or even quads! They produce fast-growing, lively lambs which makes them perfect for the commercial meat market. As well as this, some types of Mule also produce high-quality fleeces due to the rams that have been used as sires.
A Mule is created by cross breeding two sheep types: an upland ram with a hill-bred ewe being the main combination; in almost all cases the parents will be purebred animals. The sire used to breed a Mule varies, but most usually they are Blue Faced Leicester. With Mashams, the sire is always a Teeswater and the dam usually a hill breed such as a Dalesbred or Swaledale.
The pedigree hill ewes, like Swaledales or Scottish Blackfaces, may lamb in the valley and will then go back to the high ground with their pedigree lambs until the autumn and work on being hardy! Older ewes will be drafted downhill and permitted live on softer ground and continue to breed for a few more years and here the first cross-breeding which creates the Mule takes place. This makes for a sheep which thrives in upland hills, where the lambs can grow on more quickly than on mountains and high moorland.
Once Mule ewes are established, they are, by definition, relatively variable in fleeces, though planned to be very similar in conformation. They can then be further cross-bred with lowland rams, such as Texels, Suffolks, Charolais or Beltex, and currently the newly popular New Zealand Romneys. This will produce a second cross, much more designed to be a meat sheep, with a long back and large haunches, for a prime market lamb. These will also be Mules, with the difference being that they live thrive at a lower altitude, in milder climatic conditions and therefore the lambs will grow more quickly.
This transitional breeding of sheep from highland ewes to progressively more lowland rams has been traditional in most of the hills of England, Wales and Scotland, and less so in the lowlands and downlands of the south and south west, although even here there are Southdown Mules and Exmoor Mules nowadays. The system is known as the Three Tier or stratified system and is unique to the UK. It has advantages in terms of using ground effectively by suiting the animals to the local conditions, and also relies on forage grazing rather than additional feeding, so is very economical compared to housing and feeding lambs which is done extensively in France, for example.
Maintaining the quality of a flock always requires careful record keeping and a clear plan! This is why the rams will always be pedigree at every stage, because it is possible to replicate traits more specifically than when using cross-bred animals, where the variables increase dramatically with each generation. In Australia and New Zealand half-bred, cross-bred rams have been used successfully and when worked on over a few generations in larger numbers will breed consistent traits and thus create a new breed, such as the Corriedale or New Zealand Halfbred.
This has been done to some degree also in Scotland and Wales, and the term Halfbred is somewhat interchangeable with Mule. Thus a Scotch Half Bred is normally the progeny of a North Country Cheviot ewe crossed with a Border Leicester ram. Similarly the Suffolk sheep was created from a Southdown and a Norfolk Horn. Indeed the Blue-faced Leicester is derived from the Border Leicester … and so we go on!
With the aim having been primarily to achieve prime meat lambs, the focus on wool quality has been over-looked, particularly in recent years when wool prices were low. Thus today’s wool price recovery has begun to encourage farmers to select for wool as well as meat and a proportion of Mules and Mashams will have sufficiently fine and high quality wool to be classified as Blue-faced Leicester when graded. Adding Romney and some Texel is particularly helpful to this, though Suffolk, Charolais and Beltex are probably less useful. It is also interesting to see that Jacob and Gotland sheep are also being considered as useful in cross breeding, when a meat-plus-wool animal is being considered … and on we go again!