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Breeds of Livestock, Department of Animal Science

Breeds of Livestock - Border Leicester Sheep

Breeds of Livestock - Border Leicester Sheep

Border Leicester

Early History of Leicester Sheep borderleicester-web-1.jpg

Sheep with long, lustrous wool have been in Leicestershire, England since the earliest recorded history of the British Isles and are responsible for the improvement and development of other longwool breeds. Robert Bakewell (1726-95), third-generation farmer who resided at Dishley in Leicestershire, is credited with improvement of the Leicester sheep and also played an important role in the development of the Shire horse and Longhorn cattle. The breeding practices he used and advocated, mating closely related individuals to get desired type, were also influential in the early improvement of many other breeds of livestock.

Today there are three distinct breeds of Leicester sheep. The English or "Dishley" (Bakewell's improved breed), the Blueface or "Hexham" and the Border Leicester. The English is the largest of the Leicester breeds and has a long, heavy fleece in the 40s-46s range. English Leicesters resemble the Lincoln in appearance with a topknot of wool and ears set lower on the head than either the Blueface or Border Leicester. Head skin on the Blueface shows dark blue through white hair, distinguishing it from the Border Leicester which has pink skin. The Blueface and Border Leicester are of similar size and both have the Roman nose and erect ears but fleece on the Blueface typically grades finer (56s-60s) and is shorter in length and lighter weight than that of the Border Leicester. The English and Blueface breeds are uncommon in North America today. borderleicester-web-2.jpg

The Border Leicester breed was founded in 1767 by George & Matthew Culley of Fenton, Northumberland, England. They were friends of Bakewell and had access to his improved Leicesters. Some feel that the Culley brothers developed the Border Leicester by crossing Bakewell's improved Leicester rams with Teeswater ewes. Others argue that Cheviot blood was introduced. Perhaps both are correct. In any case, the breed was firmly established in England by 1850 and Border Leicesters have now surpassed the old English Leicester in popularity in the British Isles and in other countries. A separate class for Border Leicesters, distinct from the English Leicester, was first held at the Highland Show in Scotland in 1869. In 1898, the Society of Border Leicester Sheep Breeders was organized with headquarters in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Leicesters in North America

The English Leicester is said to have been introduced into the United States by George Washington, who kept a small purebred flock of Leicesters and used the rams extensively in his flock of 800 head at Mount Vernon. And in 1854, the Champion Ram at the first Minnesota State Fair was a Leicester owned by J.G. Lennon of Ramsey County. The original American Leicester Breeders Association was established in 1888. It is not known when the first Border Leicester sheep arrived in the U.S. or Canada but we do know that the 1920 census lists 767 purebred Border Leicesters in the United States. However, the decline of the wool carpet industry in the 1940's resulted in reduced numbers of all longwool breeds including the English and Border Leicesters. borderleicester-web-3.jpg

By the 1970's, increased interest in handspinning and other crafts had rekindled interest in these unique sheep with their distinguished heads and long, curly, lustrous wool. Though Border Leicesters in North America have been kept primarily in small purebred flocks, progressive commercial breeders in increasing numbers are realizing greater profits with the breed. Border Leicesters give them rapidly growing, high-quality market lambs as well as a much sought after specialty wool crop.

The fleece weight from mature females ranges from 8 to 12 pounds with a yield of 65 to 80 percent.  The stable length of the fleece ranges from five to ten inches (12.5-25cm) with a numeric count of 36 to 48 which is 38.5 to 30.0 microns.

Mature rams weigh from 225 to 325 pounds (102-147 kg) and ewe weights range from 175 to 275 pounds (79-124 kg).

Breed Associations and Registries

American Border Leicester Association, Secretary Di Waibel, PO Box 947, Canby, OR 97013, 503-266-7156,

British Sheep and Wool, British Wool Marketing Board, Oak Mills, Station Rd., Clayton, Bradford. 112 pp.

Who's Who in U.S. Sheep Breeds(poster), American Sheep Industry Assn., Inc.; 6911 S. Yosemite St.  Suite 200; Englewood, CO 80112-1414  Phone: (303) 771-3500 FAX: (303) 771-8200

British Sheep and Wool, British Wool Marketing Board, Oak Mills, Station Rd., Clayton, Bradford. 112 pp.

Handbook of Australian Livestock, Australian Meat & Livestock Corporation,1989, 3rd Edition

John Thompson, Animal Photography, Marylebone Mews, London W1G 8PY.

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Added 1995, updated June 26, 2003


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