The “Shovel” Problem

Are Bluefaced Leicester (BFL) sheep hardy enough?

I’ve been talking to Lisa, a long time Bluefaced Leicester breeder.  We both agree that we are tired of some of the misconceptions about Bluefaced Leicesters – that they are just for small-scale hobbyists, that they don’t have a sustainable genetic presence in the US, and that “Every ram is sold with a shovel.”

It’s the last point that I was considering tonight.  We are having a blizzard at the moment.  A foot of snow has fallen, and it looks like more is yet to come.   Temperatures have fallen to -25F some nights in the last month, and we know we aren’t done with cold temperatures.

We knew that the Border Leicesters would be fine.  They have thick wool that protects them from virtually everything and are a popular breed in this climate.  But come to find out, the BFLs are no less game for the weather.  While I was out doing chores, they were out in the snow.  Inside, others had snowfall piled on their backs, unmelted by body heat; a sure sign that they are fully weather-insulated.  They seem happy and healthy.

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This ewe is black, in case you can’t tell.

I have noted in the past that it is a challenge to keep some of my Bluefaced Leicester ewes in top body condition.  I’ve recently learned that there are some bloodlines in the breed that carry this trait, but that it is possible to avoid those lines.  Some of my sheep who are leanest carry those lines.  Now I know!  Fortunately, Fred the ram is a the easiest of easy keeper, so we can select our way away from this tendency.  We also have more than 50% of the flock without those lines.  One might think that the fleece fancy has caused this issue, but I believe that it was an honest mistake.  It is possible that the ram was just well-fed and appeared more adequate than his genotype turned out.  The solution to this problem is improved, standardized recordkeeping, not the blame game.

Admittedly, some Bluefaced Leicesters are kept mainly for fleece.   Their fleeces are light, though, and while some sheep are kept as pets, the cost and challenge of finding rams means that most flocks that are larger breeding operations have a meat operation, too.  The difference is that when you are catering to fiber lovers, it can be awkward to co-market your meat.  So many farms that do both separate the marketing in a way that farmers with sheep raised purely for meat don’t need to.  The goal is the same, but the conversation looks different.

In Britain, they are fond of the saying that “every Bluehead Ram is sold with a shovel” so you can bury him when he dies.  British sheep management is much different than ours, and it’s not really a surprise that more sheep die when there is no shelter, and when a ram is put in with 60 or 80 ewes to breed.  Are Blues reasonably hardy?  Yes, absolutely.  Are they as hardy as Scottish Blackfaces?  Perhaps not quite, but they have more lambs, more meat and nicer wool than a Blackface.  A little shelter and basic care isn’t too much to pay for that.  So I don’t take British grousing about BFLs too seriously.

I am raising Bluefaced Leicesters because I think they have one of the strongest suits of genetic and economic potential among breeds that have desirable wool.  I still feel this way, and I hope I can help others see it too.

 

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