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The Engine of UK Lamb Production

13 June 2016

UK mule ewes’ role as the leading prime lamb source is being challenged. This popular crossbreed faces competition, writes John Wilkes.

The mules’ rise was nothing less than meteoric - mostly at the expense of other traditional UK pure and crossbred sheep.

Mules have almost completely replaced the Scotch and Welsh half-bred ewes sired by the Border Leicester and dominated other competition since the 1970’s. On the Welsh border, the once prominent Clun breed, at its peak had sales each autumn of 75,000 sheep. In more recent years, sales number a few hundred head.

Welsh Mule ewe lambs with Charollais cross lambs at foot

Today mule numbers are declining with fewer sheep brought forward each autumn for sale as flock replacements. In fact, the Welsh Mule Breeders Association noted 32,000 ewe lambs sold in 2015 compared to 59,000 sold in 1998. A contributing factor is the Single Farm Payment Scheme – a change from sheep headage payments employed prior to 2005 that helped maintain significant sheep numbers in UK uplands.

The majority of UK mules are crossbred progeny of Scotch Blackface, Swaledale or Beulah Speckled ewes. To a lesser extent Cheviot, Welsh Mountain and Exmoor dams feature. What is common to mule types is always a Bluefaced Leicester sire.

Mules are prolific and age well. They are good mothers and produce plenty of milk. When crossed with a decent terminal sire, mules will typically rear two quality lambs to slaughter weight in 12/14 weeks.

The Bluefaced Leicester is the bedrock of this high performance crossbred partnership. Current Chairman of the Bluefaced Leicester Sheep Breeders Association (BLSBA), Richard Thomas has forthright views on the breed and by association the Welsh mule ewe lambs he rears out of Beulah ewes.

John Wilkes (R) with Chairman of the Bluefaced Leicester Sheep Breeders Association (BLSBA), Richard Thomas 

The Thomas family’s 550-acre Tanhouse Farm, Dolau, Powys has been in the family since 1822 and is synonymous with high quality sheep. Rising to 1550 feet, the Tanhouse Farm typifies upland livestock units found in the Welsh Border country. Stock is comprised of 1,300 Pedigree Bluefaced Leicester, Beulah Speckled, Mule and Texel cross ewes along with 50 Belgian Blue and Limousin suckler cows.

Richard Thomas’ ewe lambs are sold every year at the Welsh Mule Breeders Society sale in Welshpool, Powys. In 2015, the ewe lamb crop realised an average return of £120 per head. Traits most admired by mule buyers are often visual. Richard Thomas believes this hinders technological advancement within the Bluefaced Leicester breed.

Appearance is everything in mule ewe lambs - plenty of bone, big head, well- coloured face, good body size and tightness of fleece are all contributing characteristics to their high price demand.

The Bluefaced Leicester “progressive-type rams” enhance these visual characteristics in their offspring. Richard Thomas opined: “It’s a fashion and trend that if you want to be successful you have to follow.”

A traditional Bluefaced Leicester ram (photo credit Wayne Hutchinson).

A progressive Bluefaced Leicester ram (photo credit Wayne Hutchinson).

With technology savvy younger generations entering the sheep industry Richard Thomas is hopeful that genomics and Estimated Breed Values will be valued. He recounts: “I called a meeting to discuss the issue of genomics, but it wasn’t very well attended.” It’s easy to understand why when £34,000 – a record price, was paid in 2015 for a ram lamb with no recorded data.

Pursuit of desired appearance in the resultant mule ewe led to a crisis for the Blueface. The breed split along two distinct lines; traditional and progressive ram types. Disagreements stemmed from body hair colour. Bluefaced rams began to exhibit small amounts of brown hair, mostly on legs in the 1970’s.

Richard Thomas said: “No one really knows where it came from, but it soon became clear that these ‘Progressive’ rams worked well on dark faced ewes - Beulah, Swaledale and Scotch Blackface. It produced a smart looking mule ewe lamb with a slight brown tinge to the face that showed off really well in the sale ring.”

Bluefaced Leicester breed purists took exception believing the traditional white haired rams that combine well with white-faced ewes like the North Country Cheviot and Welsh Mountain should be the breed standard thereby inciting future hair wars.

The BLSBA acted to remedy this in 2015 at Peebles Agricultural Show in the Scottish Borders. For the first time separate rings and judges for the two distinct types of Bluefaced Leicester was sanctioned. A successful BLSBA sale was held in Carlisle using this method.

Richard Thomas envisions a bright future for the Blueface, but acknowledges potential challenges. The trend toward larger Blueface rams may impact a mule wether’s ability to finish at acceptable weights. Mr Thomas commented: “For every mule ewe lamb there’s a wether. Historically a wether’s shape has been frowned upon by lamb processors. Combine this with a 22kg+ finished carcass, it can be problematic.”

Beulah Speckled Face ewe and mule lamb at foot

Another development acknowledged by Richard Thomas: “For the last couple of years the cost of replacement breeding ewes hasn’t really reflected depressed fat lamb returns.” Lower lamb prices means spending on flock breeding replacements is under scrutiny.

Some prime lamb producers are rethinking strategy. Mr Thomas states: ”Farmers that normally buy 100 mule replacements each year are purchasing 80 and maybe retaining 20 homebred Texel cross ewe lambs. You can breed a Texel cross out of anything and it’s considered a cheap mule by some.”

Satisfactory growth rates, mothering and milking ability of the mule are still present in the first cross. They can be bred back to the Texel to produce a fine ¾-bred prime lamb or to the Charollais producing a quality carcass.

Texel cross mule ewes are preferred by some farmers; a fact not wasted on Richard Thomas: “People say they are doing rather well and their accountants like them because they come in at a lower price and have a high cull value.”

The Lleyn breed adds more competition to the mule as do ‘Aber’ prefix composite breed ewes from the international genetics company Innovis.

Despite increasing pressure on the mule and by association Bluefaced Leicesters, Richard Thomas is optimistic about the future for these sheep. He contends they are still the proverbial engine driving the UK lamb industry.

John Wilkes

John Wilkes
Freelance journalist

John Wilkes is a former UK Sheep producer now living in Washington DC. His experience in both the UK and USA gives him a unique perspective on livestock and food production.

Nowadays he writes and consults about livestock and agriculture. He also hosts a broadcast radio program called The Whole Shebang on Heritage Radio Network from Brooklyn, New York.

John is a board member of The Livestock Conservancy in the U.S. and a member of The American Sheep Industry Association.