With a long-standing passion for the stratified sheep breeding system in the UK, Derek Hall is keen to promote Bluefaced Leicester and Mule breeding. Hannah Park reports.
Since the Firth Bluefaced Leicester flock was established at Lilyburn, Peniculk, in the 1980s, turning out quality Bluefaced Leicester and Mule breeding stock for the commercial buyer has remained at the forefront of the business.
Derek Hall, following a career working for MLC, in Yorkshire, and latterly as director for business banking at the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), returned to farm full-time three years ago.
The farm runs about 1,000 ewes altogether, which are managed over two holdings totalling 160 hectares (400 acres), with ground made up of permeant pasture and rough grazing in the main.
The sheep flock comprises 470 Blackfaces and 470 Scotch Mules, along with a pedigree flock of 80 Bluefaced Leicesters.
Mr Hall says: “We have always bred Blackies but since taking on another 98ha unit about two miles away from the main farm seven years ago we have been able to push numbers to 1,000 ewes, breeding and keeping more Scotch Mules in recent years.
“I was trying to fit in farming alongside full-time work at RBS for several years, but I had to pick between the two in the end. You are only young once, and farming is what I wanted to do.”
Marketing rams is one outlet for Mr Hall, and with a view to producing top quality he will progeny test 25 Bluefaced Leicester ram lambs every year.
About 30 Bluefaced Leicester shearling rams, together with 15 ram lambs, are sold each year at some of the major sales including Hawes and Kelso, with some 15 in-lamb Bluefaced Leicester gimmers also sold at marts including Carlisle.
All of the pedigree Bluefaced Leicesters are artificially inseminated and although not a major part of his system, Mr Hall says he will generally do some embryo transfer work with three or so of his best breeding ewes each year.
Blackface ewes are put to a Bluefaced Leicester tup, while the Scotch Mules go to a Suffolk.
Ewes are fed according to scanning results pre-lambing at a cost of about £9/ewe for commercials, with Blackfaces generally scanning at about 150 per cent, while Mule ewes will be between 190 and 200 per cent each year.
Lambing is all done inside, starting with the Bluefaced Leicesters in the first week in March, followed by the rest of the ewes from the beginning of April.
Mr Hall says: “Weather and ground conditions at that time of year here do not lend themselves to lambing outside, so we bring everything in just ahead of lambing. It does cost money, but we get the money back at the end of the day.
“We are also assessing every Mule lamb for its face colour and coat at birth, as the two main determinants of a quality Mule ewe lamb in the marketplace at the moment, which also works well in an indoor system. Commercials will generally be turned out 24 hours after lambing, with Bluefaced Leicesters kept in until about mid-April.”
Reputation, he says, in the Bluefaced Leicester breed is everything and building up a rapport with buyers and other breeders is done over time.
“The Bluefaced breed is more commercially-based. We are not selling tups for hundreds of thousands. Our aim is to breed sound tups with a good skin, which are alert with a good carcase. We keep a track of breeding lines so we can record which Bluefaced Leicesters are breeding us the best and most consistent Mule lambs. Our customers know what they are getting from us. It does pay off and we do get a lot of repeat buyers.”
About 130 Scotch Mule gimmer lambs are kept each year for replacements, with the remaining 150 or so sold at Stirling mart and off-farm to a neighbour. Between 250 and 300 Suffolk cross ewe lambs are also sold for breeding privately, while about 130 Blackface replacements are bought-in annually from Glenrath Farms, Peebles.
Mule weathers, Suffolk cross males and surplus females are finished and sold through Stirling or direct to Woodheads to supply Morrisons with lambs finished off-grass in the main at between 19-20kg carcase weight.
Mr Hall says: “The first lambs were away at 12 weeks old, with draws generally taken every fortnight after that. I like the fast growth rate you get with a Suffolk, and we will always look for tups in the top 1 per cent for growth rate and muscle when we are buying-in Suffolk breeding tups, as we have found it does pay off.”
Amid his varied system, Mr Hall says his passion lies with Bluefaced Leicester and Mule breeding.
He says: “The success of the business here probably revolves around the Bluefaced Leicesters. We achieved our best price to date two years ago when we sold a tup lamb for £16,000 to Ireland. We have had shearling tups sell for up to £7,000 and have sold in-lamb females for £6,500, but it is a fickle trade, it does come and go.”
Ram sales aside, Mr Hall is keen to promote merits of the stratified sheep industry in the UK as a whole, in which, he says, the Bluefaced Leicester and Mule play a crucial part, the Mule being the essential link connecting the hills and uplands with lowland sheep systems.
Mr Hall has recently been appointed chair of a new promotional body, The Mule Group, set up to bring together the marketing of all types of Mule sheep, with a view that the new initiative will increase demand for Mule females and the Bluefaced Leicester breed.
“If Mules are a good trade, then Bluefaced Leicesters are a good trade,” he says. “The two work in tandem, but nobody goes forward by standing still.
“Our aim is to help promote Mules with a clear and consistent marketing message to our consumer base in a marketplace where we have some competition now, whether it be terminal crosses, Innovis-type brands or others.
“It is important we challenge our competitors, and the only way we can do that is to join forces.”
The group has seen all five societies (Scotch Mules, North of England Mules, Welsh Mules, Cheviot Mules and Highland Mules) unite to form a promotional body which will look to relay a consistent marketing message around all types of Mule sheep.
Aside from the group’s promotional activities, each society will continue to work as an individual association.
Mr Hall says: “As a breeding female, the Mule is hardy with unrivalled mothering abilities and can perform well in many different systems. The hybrid vigour comes from the uniqueness of the Bluefaced Leicester, which is genetically a very different breed of sheep to others.”