Although a breed not typically sought after as a cross, the Valais Blacknose has proved to be a desirable match for one sheep breeder.
Arriving in the UK just five years ago, the Swissnative Valais Blacknose has become a widely recognised pedigree, thanks to its distinctive appearance and subsequent media profile.
After first coming across the breed at the Royal Highland Show three years ago, sheep breeder Haig Murray liked what he saw, but, unconventionally, began thinking of ways he could incorporate the Valais into what was then his solely commercial sheep enterprise.
Fast forward to this year and a handful of North of England Mules with Valais Blacknose-sired lambs at foot from his flock could be found in the sheep lines at the same event.
Despite not picking up any rosettes, Mr Murray says he is confident his visit had the desired effect in demonstrating the result of the cross to others breeders and exhibitors.
He says: “We began experimenting with crossing the Valais after the breed arrived with us two years ago.
“I had a group of Jacob shearlings at the time and was considering what to tup them with. Ordinarily I would have settled on the Beltex, but decided on the Valais last minute purely out of interest as to what the progeny would be like.
“When the lambs arrived, I was amazed with their growth rates and, after they sold exceptionally well at a rare breeds sale later that year, I decided it was a cross worth considering for some of my other breeding ewes going forward.”
Farming on the outskirts of Carlisle, Cumbria, Mr Murray runs his sheep enterprise over 20 hectares (50 acres), which he manages alongside his full-time role as procurement manager for Dunbia in Scotland and Northern England.
Before this he had spent 21 years working as an auctioneer for United Auctions, Perth, and later for what was Cumberland and Dumfriesshire Farmers Mart at Longtown.
With the demands his job brings, family members including his father, Drew, help out during lambing and at other busy times of the year alongside his sons Iain and Jordan when they are home from university.
His system sees him buy about 50 North of England Mule hoggs each year to lamb, before selling them with lambs at foot or as breeding shearlings the following autumn.
These are lambed alongside a 50-head commercial flock made up of various breeds, a system which Mr Murray has recently switched to.
Explaining his decision, he says: “The basis behind running multiple breeds is essentially that I enjoy experimenting with different types of sheep.
“Running a sheep enterprise is all about managing costs and in comparing the productivity of these sheep against one another, I can see which best suits my low input system going forward.”
This group is tupped to a terminal sire which will see most go to the Texel or Blue Texel, with lambing done outdoors from early April.
Lambs are all finished off grass and creep and sold from mid-June onwards via Dunbia, targeting a 16-20kg E, U or R 3L carcase at about 10-12 weeks old.
This system, he says, means he can hit the stronger earlier trade for lambs and allows for these to be replaced with several hundred store lambs to run for the remainder of the year.
Bought-in each autumn and out-wintered on grass and forage crops, these are finished on grass and creep to begin drawing from in November, with a view to having them all away by the following February.
So impressed with the growth rates he had seen from the Valais-sired lambs out of the Jacobs, it was last year when Mr Murray decided on crossing the breed to 10 of his North of England Mules for the first time, giving him 16 Valais-sired lambs on the ground this spring.
A handful of these made up the group which went with their mothers to the Royal Highland Show this year.
He says: “The lambs grew unbelievably well and I have never seen lambs hold flesh and finish the way they have. This was with no special treatment; they were finished off grass and creep alongside other finishers on-farm and I sold them at eight weeks, when they averaged just over £65 at R3Ls and R3Hs.
“When considering these lambs were also out of hoggs, I was very impressed.
“The industry needs fast-growing, long, lean lambs with a good loin, and these lambs are matching the specification needed to a tee. Some may not like their appearance, and they are not the most attractive to look at, but how they look is not important to me, it is how they hang up.”
Mr Murray says the intention was to finish the tup lambs and keep the Valais cross Mule females to breed from, but after being persuaded to sell, this arm of the experiment will begin after lambing next year as he plans to cross all of the North of England Mules he buys-in this autumn to the Valais at tupping.
Cross-bred females, he says, will then be put back to a terminal sire. Alongside crossing the Valais for the commercial arm of his business, Mr Murray has also established a pure-bred flock in the last two years.
Now with 12 breeding females, the foundations of the flock were purchased in the form of an in-lamb shearling from Bruce Goldie, Dumfries, and another four ewe lambs from Carl and Ruth Walters, Shap, Cumbria.
One of his first Valais stock rams, Hullockhow Ezeikiel, was also purchased as a ram lamb from the Walters and last year he bought two ewe lambs from the Blacknose Beauties sale, Carlisle, from David Ross, Isle of Lewis.
Unlike most breeds of sheep commonly found in the UK, Valais sheep are not seasonal breeders and can do so all-year-round, meaning ewes can have up to three crops of lambs over 24 months.
Although this harnesses the potential for maximising production in going down the breeding technology route, this is not something Mr Murray says he is interested in and he continues to breed in-line with the ewes’ natural cycles.
Lambs last arrived in his flock in mid-July; these will be weaned at 10-12 weeks old, with both males and females offered for sale as breeding stock and sold privately as and when the demand is there.
As the breed is still relatively new in this country, Mr Murray explains that aside from keeping one or two homebred females each year, he will generally source replacements annually to keep bloodlines varied within his flock.
Most recent purchases include January-born Beatties Sam, from Richard Beattie, Omagh, which is set to bring in new bloodlines to the flock as the next stock ram, alongside two April-born ewe lambs.
With the ewes, by his own admission a sideline to his full-time job and main sheep enterprise, he says he is happy to keeping breeding ewe numbers where they are at.
He says: “Some people believe the Valais are just a flash in the pan, but I think they are here to stay and have a good future in this country. They are rewarding to keep and I enjoy having them.”