Sheep Breed Profile: Bluefaced Leicester
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Article By Jacqueline Harp. Photos by Terra Mia Farm, Days Creek, Oregon – In today’s world, the term “BFF” is a texting shortcut that stands for Best Friends Forever. In the world of sheep, however, “BFL” is the common nickname for the Bluefaced Leicester, and it might as well be interpreted as “Best Flock for Life,” because of the wonderful characteristics of this breed of sheep. Unlike a texting shortcut, these sheep are not a hands-off venture, as they do require attention and care.
The BFL rewards their shepherds with wonderful flock outputs and affectionate “sheepie greetings” and snuggles in the field. The returns for even a small flock more than justify the mindful management required for the BFL. Let’s learn more about this gentle giant of a dual-purpose breed that provides substantial, tasty lamb and gorgeous, much-sought-after hand spinning fleece.
By way of a little history, the BFL is a longwool British sheep breed and a recent transplant to America through the efforts of dedicated shepherds during the 1980s. BFL ewes make great mothers that are heavy milkers and prolific lambers, often birthing twins and triplets with little assistance. The rams are widely used in the United Kingdom in a cross-breeding system to produce an ewe called a mule, and that role continues on in North America.
A mule exhibits the fine fleece, exceptional mothering ability, and large, meaty body of a BFL with the added hardiness of another sheep breed, typically a local hill breed such as a Scottish Blackface. A mule will then be bred to a meat breed ram and those lambs will be fattened on pasture and sold to the lamb market. A BFL ram can be crossed with a variety of other sheep breeds for rigorous cross-bred lambs. Gotland, Shetland, Finnsheep, and Cheviot are just a few of the breeds that are gaining popularity in America for crossing with the BFL, for both hand spinning and market lamb flocks.
The BFL is considered a large sheep breed. A mature BFL ewe can weigh 150 to 200 pounds, while a mature BFL ram can weigh 200 to 300 pounds. Their body type is long, wide, and well-muscled, making for good-sized cuts of mild lamb and mutton. They have large bright eyes, long and slender upright ears, broad muzzle, good mouths even in older sheep, and very prominent Roman noses. As their name implies, they exhibit deeply pigmented blue skin, especially on their faces. Both sexes are naturally polled (hornless), with fleece-free legs, under-bellies, and faces.
BFLs are not the typical “homesteading” sheep-like Shetland, Icelandic, or Black Welsh Mountain. These breeds are substantially smaller than the BFL and are known for ruggedness and ability to survive on poor pastures and other less-than-ideal situations. In stark contrast, the BFL is a large sheep and needs high-quality, well-drained pastures.
Additionally, the BFL has a curly, single-coated fleece, which is very open and flowing; this can lead to sunburn.
Thus, adequate shelter must be available at all times.
The fleece of the BFL is beloved by hand spinners due to its beautiful locks, soft handle, incredible luster, ease of spinning, and ability to take dye well. While creamy white fleeces are the norm, there are also black and other natural colors available. BFL locks tend to grow to a length of six inches.
A shepherd can choose to either shear once a year to harvest six-inch locks, or shear twice a year for three-inch locks; the shearing decision depends on several factors, such as market demands, weather, and your own fiber needs. The longer locks require more mindful fleece management, and some people are willing to pay a premium for the longer locks.
At either length, the locks are “purled” meaning that the locks naturally curl into individual ringlets — a very popular feature for hand spinners. The micron count is between 24-28 microns, which translates to very soft fibers. Fleece can be processed at home or at a mill. Fleece weight at shearing is about two to four pounds, and 75% of that harvest is preserved after processing, which is a very high percentage of usable fleece.
Despite its large size, the Bluefaced Leicester is also known for the sweet personalities of both ewes and rams. The rams are easy to handle, and the ewes can be especially adorable as they may demand a scratch on the chin or a treat. They have a regal gait and a tight flocking instinct. Some members of a flock can be highly food motivated and can be trained to come when called. They are relatively easy to halter train and then can be placed in a livestock stand for hoof trimming, shearing, and other routine veterinary maintenance.
In conclusion, as a potential candidate for a homesteading flock, the size of the Bluefaced Leicester and extra care required can seem intimidating at first. Yet, the gentle nature and high productivity of the BFL is what makes it such a worthy contender, especially for those beginning their shepherding journey. The cross-breeding capacity, mothering ability, mild-tasting lamb, beautiful fleece, and calm disposition are what mark the BFL as a shepherd’s BFF — Best Friends Forever.
For more information regarding the Blueface Leicester sheep breed, please visit the Bluefaced Leicester Union at: bflsheep.com/about-blu/
Originally published in Countryside November/December 2021 and regularly vetted for accuracy.