Jennifer MacKenzie is an agricultural photo journalist with almost 30 year's experience. Operating from her base in Cumbria, Jennifer undertakes mainly industry-related freelance writing and photography.

Bleu du Maine find a ready market

The strengths of the Bleu du Maine as a breeding female have been proven over the last 15 years by Northumberland farming couple John and Kathleen Davison.

Kathleen and John Davison
Kathleen and John Davison

Both pedigree stock and cross-bred females and finished lambs bred at the 290-acre Lough Green, Langley on Tyne, near Hexham, find a ready market.

Committed to the Bleu since 1990, John Davison, who is in his third year as chairman of the Bleu du Maine society, first used rams on his North of England Mules to produce lambs with a leaner carcase than they had been getting with their previous terminal sire.

After buying the ram, later that year they bought their first three in-lamb females in Carlisle for their Langley flock and numbers have been built up to today’s 20 breeding ewe flock by selective breeding with few bought-in females. The flock is now closed to minimise disease risks.

“The Bleu ram produced a bigger carcase but we also found that the female line was a great advantage and we started to retain the Bleu cross females for the commercial flock, crossing them with the Texel,” said John Davison.

Such has been the breed’s success at Lough Green that 80 per cent of the 250-ewe commercial flock are now Bleu crosses, the change being precipitated during 2001 when movement restrictions because of foot and mouth made it difficult to get Mule replacements.

Kathleen and John Davison with their pedigree Bleu du Maine ewes-and lambs.
Kathleen and John Davison with their pedigree Bleu du Maine ewes
and lambs.

Home-bred Texel ram lambs from the Lough Green 30-ewe flock are used on the commercial flock and then sold as shearlings the following year.

The Texel flock has come out top in the EBLEX Better Returns Project progressive flock award for the most improved index on the flock’s lamb crop during a year, rising by 29 points to 186.

Crossbred hoggs with single Texel-sired lambs at foot are sold in May. Last year they averaged £117 for 34 sold through Hexham mart to a top price of £135.

Texel cross lambs which are sold finished through Hexham mart until the end of November last year averaged £50.47 weighing 45.9kg for 167 sold. The lambs are regular winners of local primestock shows.

The Davisons enjoy showing and the competition it brings – for a number of years they grew and exhibited late flowering chrysanthemums, winning the national championship, as well as fuchsias and Kathleen, a member of Dilston Dog Training Club, travels hundreds of miles to compete in dog agility events with her collies.

They also enjoy flying the flag for the breed which is having renewed success winning the interbreed championship and interbreed pairs at last year’s Royal Show where John will judge this year. Bleu classes are also returning to this year’s Royal Highland Show.

Judging has taken John to all corners of the UK.

“The breed went through a decline in popularity in the 1990s, partly due to its popularity after it first came to the UK in the 1980s resulting in breeders not being selective enough and the commercial producer wasn’t getting what he wanted.

“But the quality and consistency has returned and this has come through in pedigree sales we had last year with the demand and the prices breeders were prepared to pay. I sold eight rams at Carlisle but I could have sold as many again from the telephone enquiries I had afterwards.”

The Davisons have kicked off the 2005 show season, winning the Northumberland Show continental breed championship with a three shear ewe.

Among other show successes has been winning the breed championship at the Royal Welsh Show in 2003 with a three crop ewe, repeating their success of three years earlier.

At the 2004 Great Yorkshire Show the Davisons lifted the breed championship with a Bleu ram which went on to take the championship at the Carlisle August sale and sell for 850gns.

The ram topped their entry of six ram lambs and two shearlings which averaged £455.

At that sale they paid 2,000gns for another ram lamb, Maunby Butch from Stuart and Julia Goldie, of Maunby, North Yorkshire, the highest price paid for a Bleu ram for a number of years.

The pedigree flock lambs from early February with ewes being served naturally, although semen has been taken from Butch which has been used on the flock this year. The ewes lamb inside and, weather permitting, are allowed to run outside.

Bleu du Maine cross mule ewes in lamb to the Texel earlier this year.
Bleu du Maine cross mule ewes in lamb to the Texel earlier this year.

The commercial ewes lamb from the end of March through April, again inside.

“They are very easy to lamb. Because they are quite a fine-boned sheep with smallish heads we don’t get any difficulties and we have virtually no deaths at lambing,” said Mr Davison. “They are also quiet to handle.”

“With the commercial flock we have good conformation females which are prolific averaging two lambs per ewe and they are very milky,” he added.

Pedigree lambs are creep fed however, the cross bred lambs are grass reared. Mr Davison says the Bleu lambs are flexible to finish, having the ability to put on weight without getting too fat.

“The Texel works very well with the Bleu cross females. The Bleu du Maine is also successful crossed with the Beltex, as has been proven with the Millennium Bleu which we have a number of,” added Mr Davison.

Lough Green is all down to grass with the exception of 20 acres of barley which is grown for feeding to the finishing cattle along with silage taken in one cut.

The farm runs a herd of 40 Limousin and Belgian Blue suckler cows which are put to the Limousin or Blonde d’Aquitaine bulls.

Heifers are finished at 20 to 22 months old and sold direct to local butchers. Steers have been finished at 23 to 24 months old to claim the second premium through Hexham, although some smaller steers are sold direct to the butcher.

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