Swaledale sheep and the sheep breeding pyramid

Updated: May 7

A short explanation of the sheep breeding pyramid and why the Swaledale is key.


The Yorkshire Swaledale

Swaledale ram photographed in the Ullswater valley
Swaledale ram

is very commonly seen sheep in the Lake District with its distinctive black face, white muzzle and curly horns (on both ewes and rams). They are the hardy moorland sheep of the Pennines. Their wool is used for tweeds, rugs and hand knitting. Like the Herdwick of the Cumbrian fells, they mature slowly but in recent years, with the development of the sheep-breeding pyramid in the UK, their value has increased considerably due to a key characteristic: they make excellent mothers. The sheep pyramid uses every type of land in the UK from fells to lowlands to produce the lamb consumed in and exported from this country. The Swaledale is a hardy fell sheep so is able to raise lambs on poor quality upland grazing. They are crossed with the less hardy but much larger Bluefaced Leicester

Bluefaced Leicester ram, photographed in the Ullswater valley
Bluefaced Leicester ram

creating a cross-bred sheep that is the breeding stock for the next level of the pyramid throughout the UK, the North Country Mule. Hybrid vigour is the tendency for the offspring of a cross between different breeds to be more vigorous, larger and more fertile than either of the parents. It is another key to the sheep-breeding pyramid.

North Country Mule lamb photographed in the Ullswater valley
North Country Mule lamb

The second cross in the sheep pyramid uses a North Country Mule ewe and a specialised meat breed such as the Suffolk (with its floppy black ears)

Suffolk sheep photographed in the Eden valley, Cumbria
Suffolk sheep

or the Dutch Texel (with its distinctive piggy face).

Texel ram photographed in the Ullswater valley
Texel ram

The result of this cross is fast-growing

North Country Mule x Suffolk lamb photographed in the Ullswater valley
North Country Mule x Suffolk lamb

lambs for the meat trade. This sheep pyramid also means that hill farmers get a better price for their older ewes who are no longer able to raise lambs on the fells. They are still valuable as experienced mothers who can raise lambs on better quality, lowland pasture. Farmers in Cumbria who have lowland pasture often keep Suffolks and Texels to produce the second tier of the pyramid. All the photos in this blog were taken locally.


Mature Swaledale mother - a valuable resource for farmers
Older Swaledale ewe nursing her lamb

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