The Bluefaced Leicester

The Bluefaced Leicester

The Bluefaced Leicester is one of the most well known sheep breeds in the UK today, and arguably one of the most important.  Easily recognisable with its aquiline nose, pronounced ears and deep blue skin it is popular for crossing and is used as a terminal sire for nearly 50% of the UKs commercial breeding flock.  Its popularity as a terminal sire, however, has led to a divide within the breed with two distinctly different looking types.  This has led many to call for the Bluefaced Leicester to be divided into two distinct breeds, the traditional and the crossing-type.

The Bluefaced Leicester The Natural Fibre Company

The breed’s origins are relatively recent, with development started by Robert Bakewell in 18th century Leicestershire, and since then the flock size has increased exponentially.  Its popularity is due, in part, to its ability to produce commercially valuable ‘Mule’ offspring when crossed and it has been paired with more than 40 native UK breeds.  The most popular Mule-type crosses are the Welsh-mule when crossed with Welsh Mountain, Scotch-mule when crossed with Blackface, and the North of England-mule when crossed with Swaledale, and it is the Swaledale cross which began the divergence of the Bluefaced Leicester.

All good breeders will aim for conformation over looks, but when some Swaledale flocks bought the ‘reject’ coloured rams, they noticed an increase in the colour of their progeny with no apparent decrease in other qualities.  The preference in mule lambs with strikingly marked ‘pretty faces’ has led to a premium being paid for mules from this type of ram, which has in turn led to an increase in popularity of ‘Crossing-type’ rams.  The traditional Bluefaced Leicester is characterised by the deep blue skin which shows through the white hair around the face and legs.  The crossing-type however is similar in appearance in all but skin colour, with colour tending towards white with dark speckled patterning.  This leads to offspring having striking ‘butterfly markings’ on the face which are considered more sought after by breeders.   

This development begs the question; how much does this really matter to commercial breeders?  Breeders of both types of Blue-face adamantly defend their own, but should they be divided into two breeds?  If not, then what harm would be done to retaining the current breed standard?  Bluefaced Leicester Sheep Association Chairman Carl Stephenson believes that the breed is still one and the same and states “It has developed into two types, but it’s not the colour on the skin that matters, it’s the blood that runs in the veins”.  Others, however, claim that the traditional type rams are becoming increasingly hard to find in recent years, and some go as far as predicting that the Crossing type will soon become the dominant breed.  Regardless of opinion, the Bluefaced Leicester remains a popular sheep with a good carcass and a quality lustre fleece, but it is becoming increasingly challenging to answer the simple question; what does a Bluefaced Leicester look like? 

One interesting aspect of this debate is that in no case is a black Bluefaced Leicester acceptable for pedigree flockbook registration in the UK, although they are not infrequently born and have the reputation for being hardier (the Bluefaced Leicester is generally considered a “tender” sheep with greater propensity to die young than other sheep).  They are also popular with hand spinners and black Bluefaced Leicesters are accepted into the USA flockbook.  This of course begs another question: is all the available black Bluefaced Leicester truly from these sheep or from mules which are particularly similar to their fathers?