Martin Allan tells Wendy Short how he and his Cumbria-based family have achieved notable success in a relatively short time with their flock of Blue-faced Leicesters.

IT GENERALLY takes a lifetime to establish a noted flock of pedigree sheep. However, the careful selection of foundation stock and experience with other breeds has allowed the Cumbria-based Allan family to make their mark on the Blue-faced Leicester circuit within just one decade.

The Greenhow flock of Blue-faced Leicesters is managed by Martin Allan, whose first outing at the major breed show and sale at Hawes in 2013 saw the family return home with the championship prize and a cheque for 6,500gns. This achievement, just a few years after the flock was set up, was followed in 2019 by two of the gimmer hoggs taking the top prizes at the Hawes and Carlisle female breed society sales, attracting bids of 1,400gns and 8,500gns respectively.

The family, who produce the ‘crossing type’ of Blue-faced Leicester (BFL), knew exactly what they were looking for when they decided to establish their own flock in 2010, said Mr Allan, who farms at Dufton with his brother David, father Stephen and uncle Alec.

“The main focus of our sheep flock is to produce and sell North Country Mule gimmers from our 1,700 Swaledale ewes,” he said. “We had always bought in our BFL tups, but I decided it would be interesting and possibly beneficial to try and breed our own.

“When choosing tups, good conformation is the main requirement as it will be passed on to the Mule and our profitability depends on the production of high-quality females and finished lambs. I also look for a sire with a large head, plenty of bone, good skin and a correct mouth. It is not easy to breed tups with a combination of sizeable head and excellent teeth, but aiming to produce several positive traits in one animal is the challenge faced by all livestock breeders.

“In a ewe, good skin and teeth are also essential, of course, and I like our females to reach 100kgs fully-grown. In the past I have dabbled with embryo transfer, but in 2019 I increased numbers and implanted 90 embryos from our best females into the Mules. Scanning results show that 65 ewes have held and that is very pleasing. If everything goes according to plan, there should be plenty of lambs to choose from when it comes to selecting 2020 replacements and breeding tups.”

The flock was started with the purchase of two females from the Swathburn and Hewgill flocks and these lines have been used extensively, with ewe numbers at 40 head. Another notable purchase at 8,000gns was a tup from Otterburn Lodge and he has performed particularly well for the family.

The farm is in a high rainfall area and sits at 800-feet above sea level, with the land rising to 1,000 feet. Therefore the BFL ewes are brought into the buildings in January, to start lambing on March 1. Due to the high numbers of Swaledales that are lambed outside, the BFL ewes and lambs are kept inside until May.

“It is widely accepted that the BFL requires greater care, compared with some of the other breeds. I liken it to a dairy cow and it does require feeding, in order to remain in good condition,” he said. A third-generation owner occupier at Greenhow, he is married to Carla and they have a baby daughter, Ada.

The sale of BFL breeding females is a welcome source of income for the family.

“We sold ten hoggs last year at the local sales to an average 2,100gns. This not only boosts income but also helps with cash flow; the sales are held in the autumn and that can be a lean time for sheep farmers.”

The lamb trade in general has been good in recent months and Mule wether lambs were selling for £100 for at the height of the trading period. They are finished at home, with the majority sold through Penrith auction mart and a small percentage marketed deadweight.

“Mule lambs are taken to 50kgs for the live auction, as that seems to be the most popular weight with the buyers. The same does not apply to deadweight selling, where 45kgs lambs are required. The attention that is paid to selecting for good conformation in the BFL is reflected in the grading of our Mule lambs and they will usually reach R3L classification.

“Establishing my own BFL flock means I have greater control over the type of sire that is used and gives me the ability to select tups that will suit our own Swaledale ewes. By sticking to that goal, I have bred sheep that also appeal to other breeders. The flock is comparatively young and there is a lot of scope to make further improvements. The popularity of the BFL and the North Country Mule has endured for decades and I think both breeds will be around for many years to come,” said Mr Allan.