Bluefaced Leicester is one of our favourite wools here at ECY which is why our signature Milburn 4ply and DK yarns just had to be made using it. These noble sheep are fascinating and so we felt like now was a good time to share this love with you and give you a bit of insight into animals behind this highly sought-after fibre. I could think of noone better to help me with this than my friend Leigh, the voice of Hill Top Farm in Malham, also known as @hilltopfarmgirl”. Leigh farms with her partner Neil Heseltine, whose family have farmed in Malham for generations.
We have known each other via social media for years and our connection has been solidified through vists to her beautiful, cosy holiday cottage in amongst the Yorkshire Dales. You really get a feel for the countryside and the rural way of life being in amongst the rolling hills, drystone walls, cows and of course, the stars of this piece, the sheep!
How many Bluefaced Leicesters do you have?
We have about 15 ewes and have tups and lambs too.
Do your sheep have names?
Yes, the breeding ewes are named in families. e.g. we had a favourite called Annalise - she was a great ewe. We’ve also had a Gwyneth, Elise, Bridget and many more
The tups also have names - often the Farm name they’ve come from but sometimes places or people. Some examples include Patrick, Kendal (a big favourite), Gonzalo and Legend.
How much fleece do they produce each year? (Do you know how much of that might be lost in processing?)
I’m reliably informed by Laura Rosenzweig of Laura’s Loom that the average BFL fleece is about 1.5kg, I'm not sure about processing but there’ll be some loss for every breed.
How long does it take to shear them all?
It’s pretty quick as they don’t have a big heavy fleece. The Black Wensleydales have a huge fleece with a long staple so take much longer for the shearers.
Does what the sheep eat or how much they eat affect their fleece?
Ours eat grass and hay but in most modern systems they will be fed concentrates - a mix of cereals/grain. I’m sure diet does affect the fleece but it’s probably difficult for us to quantify. If their bodies were under stress this would certainly show in the wool.
Do different parts of the fleece feel different?
Yes - where the sheep lies down regularly, a bit fuzzier - I’m sure there’s a technical term for this!
How long do they live for? Does their fleece quality change as they get older?
They are quite well known as being hard to keep alive. They could live to seven or eight, or even older if everything went well - this would be a fairly standard age for any sheep. Their fleece will definitely be less superior as the sheep ages, similar to hair in people. Thinner and less of it but it still has the positive characteristics of BFL fleece.
Do they come in different colours or are they always white?
Going back 20 years you’d see black ones around. Nowadays that’s rare; people saw it as a fault and they naturally declined as they were removed from flocks. It’s traditional to keep black sheep for children so some farmers do that and don’t breed from them. If we see them we often ask to buy them as we like having the naturally coloured fleece.
Do your fleeces go to the British Wool Marketing Board and do you think it’s a good or flawed system?
All our BFL fleece goes to one or two private buyers who have done amazing things with it. They both have small businesses which create yarn or products with the fleece which is very important to us. It was treated as a commodity by the BWMB which is what they have to do but this seemed a shame for such a high quality fleece. We made a few contacts in the fleece/fibre world and we’ve sold it privately since. I can’t knock the BWMB as it offers a good service to lots of farmers, we just didn’t think it was right for our BFL (and Wensleydale) fleece.
Given how in-demand BFL fibre is amongst the hand knitting community, why don’t we see more of them in the fields? Is it too small an industry to affect that?
Simply because raising sheep for wool doesn’t necessarily pay. The cost of breeding and and feeding them isn’t commercially viable on fleece alone. Private sales have been a lot more lucrative for us than the BWMB though. We could possibly make more on fleece by selling individual fleeces to hand spinners but that requires a bit of work, skirting and cleaning up fleece. Maybe when I have more time though!
How popular are they amongst the farming community, generally?
They have a reputation for being high maintenance! They eat a lot and it can be hard to keep them fit if it’s a bad winter - some will be inside all winter. They are popular with Mule breeders though and that’s their niche. They’re basically crossed with a hill ewe to create the Mule. We breed the North of England Mule which is a Swaledale or Scottish Black Face ewe and a BFL sire (tup). Mule females are an excellent cross breed - they are brilliant mothers. They have the hardiness and mothering instincts of the Swaledale and the size and prolificacy of the BFL. BFLs have multiple lambs and lots of milk. Some farmers do breed them pure - these types are still very blue in the face whereas crossing Leicesters tend to be brown in the face.
Did they drop out of favour in the seventies like a lot of breeds and if so how was the breed maintained?
The breed didn’t drop out of favour in the 70’s - the reverse is true; BFL tups were probably replacing the breeds that went out of favour. Farmers valued their attributes as a crossing breed and they remain very popular.
Do you show them and if so is fleece quality an important factor judges look at?
We’ve shown them in the past - it takes quite a lot of work to get them show ready; trimming fleece, washing legs and faces. The quality of the fleece is very important for the judge, it’s a big part of the breed characteristic and has to be correct. The judge will be looking for a fine fleece, the purl and the evenness of the fleece tight through the sheep
Do you breed the sheep specifically trying to improve the quality of their wool? Or is another factor more important like meat?
The quality of the fleece is important in the sense that it’s a definite breed characteristic - you want it to be fine. That being said, fleece alone isn’t really a factor, it’s the best attributes to pass on in Mule breeding that we’ve always looked for. Perhaps as we try and make more of our wool our finer skinned sheep may be the ones we favour. Saying that, breeding for any one characteristic doesn’t necessarily make for good animals.
BFL sheep are definitely not bred for meat - their carcass is just too big and rangey, you could probably never feed them enough to get them commercially fat enough for the meat industry.
Are they easy Lambers or do they need a lot of watching?
They’re not easy lambers - again they’re notoriously high maintenance! The Swaledale has such a high instinct for mothering due to its life in the hills. The BFL can have a largely blasé attitude!
Do you always put BFL tups to the BFL ewes or do you sometimes mix breeds - does this change the fleece?
As discussed, we breed the Mule which can have a very nice fleece if it falls towards the BFL type. We’ve also experimented with creating a Wensleydale ‘Mule’ where we put a Black Wensleydale tup onto a Black BFL ewe. These black crosses will be sheared for the first time this year and look to have a great fleece - we hope it’s good given that both breeds are famous for the quality of their wool.
How hardy (or not) are they, and do they prefer lowland, sheltered farms rather than hill farms?
They’re not very hardy at all. They have fabulous quality fleece but not a lot of it. It’s easy to see when you compare to the Swaledale or Herdwick which have very dense wiry wool which keeps the sheep water and wind proof on the hills. It’s a very fine, big, rangey sheep. The BFL has a bit of a reputation for being very high maintenance but they make a great cross (Mule). They’re fine being outside in the summer but could lose condition easily in the winter - lots come inside.
Are they a friendly breed that are easy to handle? would they be suitable for a smallholding environment?
They are extremely friendly which is the great thing about them. They’re curious and good fun to have around. They’re big sheep to handle - even the ewes - so that would have to be factored in. The fact that they’re friendly helps and they will do anything for food. If a smallholder wanted their wool or wanted to sell it then it may be that they’re a good option. As discussed, they’re not naturally dual purpose in terms of meat so you’d need to do something with the tups.
Some people think BFL look more intelligent than some other sheep, do different breeds have different personalities?
The hill breeds tend to be slightly wild and nervy in temperament - that’s due to generations of genetics surviving in the hills so it isn’t surprising. They literally seem to live on their wits sometimes and you’d rarely be able to touch one unless you caught it with a sheepdog. The more domestic of the breeds like the BFL can be much tamer and would seek out food and a head rub. BFL’s have a very regal air about them - they're tall with long necks and dominant noses.
Any other snippets you’d like to share with us?
As mad as it seems to keep a breed which aren’t always easy they are extremely endearing sheep. They generally divide people in terms of their looks but I personally love their big roman noses and huge ears. They have bags of personality and their fleece of course speaks for itself. I love having them on the farm!
Social media links/website:
Hill Top Cottage & Bunkbarn
Hill Top Farm