North Sheep Preview

NSA North Sheep: Hardy Dalesbreds help battle through tough times

The Wilson family, who are hosting NSA North Sheep this year, say they feel ‘honoured’ to have been approached by the event organisers when they were looking for a suitable farm site. Wendy Short went to meet them.

The Wilson family’s business involves three generations and covers three separate sites totalling 687 hectares (1,700 acres) of grassland and carries around 1,300 breeding sheep.

Farming near Harrogate, North Yorkshire, the Wilsons have been tenants of the main steading, Crimple Head, since the 1930s.

The family was lucky enough to have the chance to buy the neighbouring Phoenix Farm, when it came up for sale in 1982. They also rent a hill livestock holding, about 12 miles from base, which is managed in partnership with Kevin Wilson, Blubberhouses.

The farmland ranges from heavy clay through to medium loam, together with fenced moorland and rough pasture.

Michael farms in partnership with his two sons, David and Martin, with David’s son Richard working alongside them.

Breeds

Their main flock is made up of Dalesbred ewes, which are put to a home-bred Teeswater sire to produce Masham sheep, with most Masham gimmer lambs sold for breeding at the breed association sales. Michael’s father and grandfather before him kept Dalesbreds, and he sees no reason to switch breeds.

“Dalesbreds have good shape, coupled with hardiness. The breed suits this farm and performs well for us,” says Michael. “The ewe’s maternal instincts are strong and the lambs are up and suckling within a short time of being born.

“In our opinion, the Dalesbred produces a better quality carcase, compared with other hill breeds, and it is equally as hardy. In general, most of our ewes will achieve six lambings, with some going up to eight or nine.

“Sheep breeds tend to go in and out of fashion and we have noticed a surge of interest in Masham females in recent years. A lot of our customers say they used to keep Mashams years ago and are returning to the breed after trying other options.”

The ewes are scanned routinely and separated into batches, with lambing taking place indoors from February until mid-April. Shearlings go into the later group.

The average lambing percentage, in relation to the number of lambs on the ground, is in the region of 170 per cent, with Texels used as terminal sires.

Newborn regime

“We have very strict rules for managing the newborn lambs, navels are always treated with iodine and we use pine shavings instead of straw,” says Michael. “It is a bit more expensive, but its use is justified because it reduces the risk of joint-ill.

“Each lamb is treated as an individual and we try and deal with issues as soon as they arise, rather than waiting for the situation to get worse, before taking action.

For example, if we find a ewe is short of milk, we will give her lamb colostrum as soon as possible after birth.”

There is no set rule relating to the marketing of terminal-sired lambs. They are either sold as stores or finished, depending on the weather, the availability of grass and auction mart prices. 

Breeding sheep are generally sold in autumn, with all the livestock going through the local auction marts at Skipton, Bentham and Otley.

“It looked as though lamb prices were going to be fairly good at the start of the season, but the market downturn which followed was very bad news,” says Michael.

“Returns have picked up since then, but we cannot afford to take any less for our lambs, because feed has been so expensive. In my estimation, most of our costs have practically doubled over the past eight years.

“Last year we sold more stores than usual, as we felt we wouldn’t be able to finish the lambs to our usual standard because of the bad weather. In other years, creep feed was used sparingly, but we have been forced down this route in recent times.” 

Grassland

Around 8ha (20 acres) of grass is ploughed out and reseeded annually. The grass seed mixture contains late-heading varieties of rye-grass. Diploids are preferred, as tetraploids do not persist for as long in the sward.

Timothy is included for its ability to grow well on wet land and white clover is added to increase protein levels. One cut of silage, produced without additive, is made into a mixture of big bales and clamp in July. 

“Like everyone else last season, we struggled to achieve the quality of the forage and grazing we would normally expect,” says Michael. “Keeping condition on the ewes has been difficult and they have not had as much milk as we would like, especially those in the early lambing group.

“We have had to feed a lot more bought-in concentrate and extend the ewe feeding period in order to keep them going.”

A couple of hundred acres were drained in the late 1970s and early 1980s and this land now carries twice as much livestock as it did previously.

Michael says: “I’m a firm believer in the old adage you will only get as much out of land as you are prepared to put in. But despite all our improvements, there is still some land here which has never seen a plough.” 

Stewardship

Some 200ha (500 acres) of the more marginal farmland has been in countryside stewardship since 1999 and the farm is now participating in the Entry Level Scheme (ELS).

An application to join the Higher Level Scheme (HLS) has been made and the family is awaiting a response. The Wilson family admits income from environmental schemes is an essential element of profitability, along with the Single Farm Payment. 

The ELS requirements are focused on maintaining and improving the hedges, ditches and dry stone walls.

The remains of what is believed to have been John O’Gaunt’s Castle, complete with moat, is within the farm boundary. It is a scheduled monument, which helped with the stewardship application. The only way in which our farming policy is affected is the slight restriction on fertiliser usage.

“We have quite a large area of moorland and rushy pasture. It is difficult to make money out of this type of ground, aside from putting it into environmental stewardship,” says Michael. “Our income has already taken a huge hit since headage payments were abolished. If we had to survive solely on the income from livestock, then our business would look very different.”

Maintaining a high health status flock is crucial, with protection against footrot, clostridial diseases, toxoplasma and enzootic abortion given on a routine basis.

Fortunately, the farm was not among those which lost their livestock during the foot-and-mouth outbreak. 

“Of course, there is an expense associated with vaccination, but it is much more cost-effective than losing animals or limiting production due to ill health,” says Michael “Our job is to keep our sheep and cattle alive and healthy, but we are always on our guard against bringing disease on to the farm.” 

Daily tasks are roughly divided between members of the family, with Michael involved in some of the paperwork and Martin mainly looking after the cattle and the stewardship schemes. David and Richard work mainly with the sheep. David is chairman of both the Masham and Dalesbred sheep breeders’ associations. 

Richard plays a vital role in the management of the flock and runs his own flock of pure-bred Texels.

During the summer months, Richard contract-shears with fellow shearer, Richard Pedley of Kirkby Lonsdale. For the remainder of the year, he works at home.

The farm employs James Gill, and takes on additional help at lambing. Michael’s other son, Alan, runs a local garage.

In the past, the family has carried out most of the major tasks, but contractors are being brought in more often, due to the rising machinery costs. Contractors make the silage (apart from mowing) and are booked for some larger fencing projects.

Despite the difficulties and setbacks of the past year, the family is looking forward to North Sheep.

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