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I was introduced to Border Leicester sheep on a stifling July day at a nearby 4-H Show. Passing through the sheep barn with no goal other than a shady shortcut, I saw a remarkable animal that made me stop in my tracks. While most sheep lay in the straw under fans, a great white being was holding court. He was covered in shimmering curls and sported a distinguished roman nose.
“What is this?”I asked.
“It’s a Border Leicester,” answered the lady standing by the pen.
Holy Toledo. I had never even noticed a sheep before, and suddenly I was speechless.
He stood on his hind legs with his front legs on a gate. During the 20 or so minutes that I stood there, he never dropped down to rest.Instead, he greeted you and then offered his head for caresses and his brisket for a rub. I was not the only person enthralled; he had a circle of admirers, and we took turns scratching him here and patting him there. This was Tom Bob, one of the first Border Leicester rams that Nancy and Lelli Weik of Overlook Manor Farm had in their show string. They were already smitten by the breed, and Nancy was only too happy to sing its praises. That was the day that I fell in love with Border Leicesters, and I show no sign of recovering more than a decade later.
I will give you the usual breed ‘blah-blah’ in coming paragraphs — growthy lambs, good mothers, easy-to-handle sheep, wonderful fiber — but there are several breeds that fit that bill. However, there is an undeniable and entirely visceral element that makes one choose a Thoroughbred over a Morgan horse or a Kerry cow over a Holstein. It is different for every one of us in the sheep business, and it comes down to how your animals look to you in the field as you brave every kind of weather to take care of them.
I can only speak for me, but I still get a thrill when I see a field of healthy, well-put-together, four-month-old lambs cavort towards me at feeding time; their already splendid fleeces flowing and their joyful Border Leicester ears bobbing over the beginning of a distinguished roman nose.
Then I go out into my brood ewe field, and my girls encircle me with a quiet dignity. I remember them as yearlings, sleek perfection in the show ring. I remember their mothers and grandmothers, a proud line of achievement running back in time. At least four times, Border Leicester ewes have been supreme champions at Maryland Sheep and Wool. That means both show judges agreed that the champion Border Leicester ewe of that year outshined the champion ewes from all the other breeds at the show. Quite an achievement to occur once, it happened again this year.
The rams? Well, they can take your breath away. Think of a combination of Cary Grant, Denzel Washington and ___ . Ladies, you fill in the blank. While these stud muffins are all-guy, they are well-mannered and surprisingly easy to handle. My rams have always been fond of me, and it’s an unforgettable experience to have a 200-pound-plus fellow with a heart-stopping fleece and devil-may-care attitude striding up to greet you. Look, it’s Prince Harry with hooves! Think of four of them doing it at once. I could charge admission.
How I ended up with the world’s gosh-darned best sheep the first time out, I can’t say.Nancy sold me my first four Borders in 1999 and I’ve never looked back.At sheep shows, I walk from pen to pen late at night and look at sheep. There are bigger sheep. There are sheep with softer fiber.There are more unique sheep. But when I put the entire package together — looks, management, production, fiber, tractability — I thank my lucky stars that I took the shortcut that day and met my first Border Leicester. Tom Bob, handsome devil, you may be gone but you are not forgotten.
Here’s the Border Leicester breed spiel:
Border Leicesters Work Hard for You
- Hardy and productive Border Leicesters are a true dual-purpose breed; there’s a well-muscled meat carcass under that beautiful wool.
- The Border Leicester’s feed efficiency is legendary, lowering your input costs and making them an excellent choice for forage-based operations.
- Border Leicesters are a natural when it comes to direct marketing. Mild, tender lamb and premium fleece that tops the handspinning market keep customers coming back for more.
- Border Leicesters are a medium-sized sheep whose calm disposition makes them easy to handle.
- Border Leicester ewes weigh 150 to 175 pounds. Long-lived and prolific, they are excellent mothers with sound, long-lasting udders.
- Border Leicester rams are noted for good temperament and manageability.
- Border Leicester lambs can be prepared quickly for the high-priced ethnic markets.
- Their wool-free legs and heads make them easy to shear and thus beloved by shearers.
Beautiful Border Leicester Fleeces
- Those eye-catching, lustrous Border Leicester locks are a dream to spin.
- Border Leicester fiber is also popular for knitting, felting and Santa’s beards.
- Border Leicester combines well with angora goat, camelid and silk fibers for custom yarns and rovings.
- You name it, there is a market for Border Leicester fleece.
Border Leicesters in Commercial Operations
- In major sheep-producing countries around the world, Border Leicesters are the crossing sire on commercial ewe flocks. The resulting crossbred lambs are renowned for their hardiness and their ability to gain weight faster with fewer groceries.
- Growthy Border Leicester lambs on grass make them excel in pasture-based operations.
- Progressive commercial breeders in increasing numbers are realizing more profits from Border Leicesters and Border Leicester-cross sheep.