Throughout history, Hill Breed Sheep have been the basis for all breeds, with many scattered all over the world and living autonomously in mountainous regions. During more recent centuries certain Hill Sheep have been developed to consistently breed exactly true to type and now form the basis of structured breeding programs. Some of the Hill Sheep breeds are Scottish Blackface, North Country Cheviot, Swaledale, Welsh Mountain, Shetland and several other regional breeds. For the purposes of this article we discuss the Scottish Blackface (SBF) sheep that are indigenous to Northern England, Scotland and similar cooler temperate climates. The history of the breed is lost in the mists of the past, but there are references to sheep that were probably the forerunners of the Scottish Blackface of today. Monastery records of the twelfth century speak of the Dun or Blackface breed of sheep. The monks used this sheep's wool for their clothes and also exported large amounts to Europe.
Early attempts to improve the SBF breed with New Leicester type crosses were dropped in favor of natural environmental improvement, when it was realized that the SBF had the ability to survive and reproduce under the most adverse conditions and was therefore best suited to hill and mountain grazing. There are several regional variations in type which range from the large framed Perthshire with medium to heavy long wool to the lighter framed short wooled types, with the Newton Stewart type being the most refined and improved but no less hardy.
Today many of these types are intermixed and variations can easily be seen in modern stock. The SBF represents about a third of the UK's purebred stock and, commercially more important, contributes its genes to millions of crossbred stock.
The Scottish Blackface breed has adapted very well to the conditions in the US, particularly in the northern tier of states. They are "Easy Care." The ewes lamb easily, quickly and, aided by the mothering of the attentive ewe, lambs are up and feeding in a very short time. The ewes are defensive of their lambs and develop a strong bond.
The breed has been described as of "fierce and hardy look", and that description still applies today. Both ewes and rams are horned with black and white marking on heads and legs. The body of the white open fleece should be free of black fiber. Scottish Blackface wool is in a class of its own, and has no direct competitors in its field. The purpose of the fleece is to keep the sheep dry and warm in the extremes of the bitter weather she has to face. One good shake will disperse all the snow off her back and the openness of the fleece allows quick drying.
The Southern types have finer wool and are generally classed as short or medium fine with a Bradford count of 40 or so. Northern types have coarse stronger wool and normally yield around 5 to 6 lbs of grease wool. The white wool takes dye easily.
The main markets for these wools are mattress and upholstery trades, carpets and heavy cloth trades. These carpets are far superior in every way to carpets made from man-made fibers and softer wools; they are warmer, better wearing and have a rich deep feel and appearance which artificial fibers cannot achieve. The finer wools are used for blending into many strong wearing clothes, overcoats, working tweeds and heavy blankets. The finest Scottish Blackface wool is blended with North Country Cheviot wool and goes to the famous Harris Tweed trade.
The Scottish Blackface breed has been developed to utilize rough or coarse grazing ground and to produce grass fed premium market lambs of the highest quality, unrivaled for their sweet flavor and tenderness. When stocking new ground, the Scottish Blackface ewe has the added advantage of the homing or hefting instinct. In practice, many farms in Scotland are sold with the sheep included in the trans- action. The Scottish Blackface breed is very self sufficient but may need assistance to winter over in those areas where snow falls are heavy and little or no ground is blown bare. Supplementary hay feeding may be needed. They recover very quickly following bad winters since they have great courage which keeps them foraging for the best spring growth available. Almost nothing can tame their independent spirit, which is what makes them the Premier Hill Breed.
Sheep breeding in recent years has been more directed at prolificacy of the ewe and ensuring that the carcass of the lamb has minimum fat and bone. Cross breeding the Scottish Blackface ewe to produce hybrid maternal ewes is successful because genetic factors add to the cross traits of hardiness, prolificacy, and carcass quality. The Scottish Blackface is at the pinnacle of the 3 Tier Stratified Breeding System where ewes are kept on coarse grounds for around 4 years and the older ewes are drafted to better pastures to be put to Bluefaced Leicester ram to produce Scotch Mules. The other popular crosses being with the North Country Cheviot (Cheviot Mules) and Border Leicester (English Half bred/Greyface). It has also been found that the SBF ewe very easily adapts to a wide variety of rams giving a lamb crop with good management of 200% or greater.
The Mule ewes from these F1 crosses are both docile, milky and prolific and are ideal for further crossing with heavy meat breed Terminal Sires to produce fast growing grass fed quality prime lamb.
The Scottish Blackface ewe has a long life and typically will give four or five lamb crops on the hill or marginal ground, and a further two or three crops on the lower ground. The rams are also long lived, and are typically put out on the hills with the ewes in November, one ram to 40 or 50 ewes. The rams run with the ewes for about 6 weeks and are then brought in to winter pastures. Ewe lambs are not normally put to the ram in their first year. The rams are often painted with an orange raddle before going to the ewes, so that the shepherd can keep an eye on his activities from a distance. During the past few years the Scottish Blackface Breeders Association in the UK has conducted a sire reference scheme for the breed with excellent results. Semen from three of the rams in the scheme was collected and exported to the US in 2005 and 2006. Several farms have used the semen and the new genetics have vastly improved the weight and growth rate of the lambs. The small hill lamb is perhaps the finest quality giving a carcass free from superfluous fat and waste, and fits very well into the burgeoning ethnic market.
In the US the Scottish Blackface, and other hill breeds, have not reached their full potential as the basis for premium lamb production due, in part, to the small numbers of animals avail- able. This breed is ideally suited to grass based farming and in an era when grain costs are escalating, these sheep will thrive and be profitable on all types of pasture, particularly in the northern states. The production of the F1 Mule ewe can surely follow and the commercial producer will have an easy keeping, productive commercial ewe available to produce premium mar- ket lambs on grass. The Scottish Blackface Breeders Union has been established to promote this Premier Hill Breed. The object is to maintain the breeds' own unique identity and to be the maternal ewe that produces the ubiquitous Scotch Mule.