Three sheep hill breeds work for upland farm

Hill farming is not the easiest of options with its mix of high altitude, difficult land and hard climate, but for the Dickinson family it has been a way of life since they bought Brockstones in the 1930s. Neil Ryder reports.

Working with the three local hill sheep breeds, the Herdwick, Swaledale, and Rough Fell can at first sight seem unnecessarily complicated, but for the Dickinson family it is a system which works well on their Lake District farm.

Brockstones, Kentmere is a 450-hectare (1,112-acre) farm with common grazing rights on Kentmere Dale Head common. Farmed by Hannah Dickinson in partnership with her father, Ivan, and the help of Hannah’s partner, Stephen Raven, Brockstones is mostly self-contained with around 180-190ha (445-470 acres) of ‘improved’ pasture and the remainder rough hill grazings.

The farm itself lies at about 275m (900ft) rising to about 580m (1,900ft) above sea level. Fell grazings go on to reach the 760m (2,500ft) contour. Rainfall is a hefty 2,540mm (100 inches) annually and the farm is something of a snow trap, catching snow from both easterly and westerly directions. Winters are long and as a result cattle are housed from October often through to May.

“The farm was originally four individual farms,” says Miss Dickinson. “Which has meant we took over many traditional buildings and dry stone walls coming to the end of their useful life.”

The farm is in the Lake District Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA), which Miss Dickinson says has been a ‘godsend’. “It’s allowed us to restore and repair traditional walls and buildings. Without the help of the ESA we could not have afforded to do most of this work and the buildings would have gradually become ruins.”

The Lake District ESA comes to an end next year and Miss Dickinson says she will look at transferring to the Uplands Entry Level Scheme (UELS) or Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) environmental schemes.

“We are carrying just above 900 ewes in total and keep up to 300 replacements each year. In the past the farm will have carried more sheep than now, but numbers have been reduced largely to meet the needs of the ESA and other schemes.


Farm facts

  • A 450-hectare (1,112-acre) hill farm at the head of the Kentmere Valley, near Kendal, Cumbria, with grazing rights on Kentmere Dale Head Common
  • The farm has been owner-occupied by the Dickinson family since the 1930s
  • The farm has a Hill Farming Apprentice supported by the Prince’s Countryside Fund and managed by Cumbria Farmer Network
  • The land includes 180-190ha (445-470 acres) of ‘improved’ pasture ranging from low-lying meadow land to more difficult land adjoining the rough hill grazings
  • Sheep flock is around 900 breeding ewes plus around 300 replacements

Herdwick

“Originally the farm had Swaledales and Rough Fells and there was never a Herdwick on the farm until about 20 years ago. The Herdwick seemed better able to deal with ticks than the Swaledale and are used to help ‘mop up’ ticks on the farm.”

Miss Dickinson says ticks were never a major problem on this farm until about four years ago, then for some unknown reason the population exploded.

“We also feel the Herdwick is able to deal with the climate here and needs a little less feeding than either the Swaledale or the Rough Fell which are larger breeds.”

She says profit-wise the Herdwick can also hold its own. “The only thing being the Herdwick draft ewe can be worth a little less than the Rough or Swale draft ewes - a real plus for the Herdwick draft ewe buyer.

“That is not really an issue here as we tend to keep our Herdwick draft ewes and cross them with the Texel tup. People ask why we have the three breeds saying we are just making extra work for ourselves, but in practice it works well on this farm.”

The Swaledales and the Herdwicks graze Brockstones, usually staying within their own breed groups even on open land, and the Rough Fells run on the common. At the moment up to 500 sheep are run on the common during the summer.

Miss Dickinson says within each of the breeds a number of ewes are bred pure to produce home-bred flock replacements.

“The rest will be put to mostly Texel tups for prime lamb production, with all lambs not retained for breeding being finished on the farm.

“We scan all our ewes, normally giving just over 120 per cent plus lambs based on ewes tupped and slightly less in terms of lambs reared.”

Apart from any problems, all the ewes lamb outside from about April 20 onwards, starting with ewes and shearlings following a week or so later then running into May.

“While a few twins are welcome, we do not want a lot of twins,” says Miss Dickinson. “In a way, the fact we are scanning tends to mean we have more lambs simply because those ewes carrying twins are separated and given a little extra feed and care than those with singles. In the past, without scanning and special care, many of these twins would not have survived.”

Prime lambs

Sales for prime lambs start mainly in December running through to March and Miss Dickinson says while there may be a ‘few stragglers in April’ everything goes when it is ready.

“We sell virtually all our finished lambs on a deadweight basis. The smaller will go at about 30kg liveweight as light lambs giving a maximum 13.5kg carcase weight, while the bigger lambs will go at about 38-40kg liveweight giving an 18-20kg carcase.

“The market has changed from when demand was for the larger lamb and our buyer will not pay for any weight above 21.5kg carcase weight, so we want to avoid giving him free meat above this weight or take a reduction for excess fat.”

She says one of the problems at Brockstones has been the relatively large Rough Fell carcase, so as a result they are trying Beltex cross Texel tups to help keep lamb size down.

Miss Dickinson says she has nothing against livestock markets but due to her work on the farm, and also her two small children, it can be difficult to spend a day at the market.

“When selling deadweight we can take two loads of lambs to the collection centre at Kendal and be home again within a morning. We like knowing the basic price paid before taking the lambs and also value the feedback information from the grade sheet which helps us improve our lambs.”

Apart from the sheep, the farm runs a herd of around 45 spring calving suckler cows, mostly Limousin crosses with a few Galloways and everything is bred to the Limousin.

All calves, apart from any retained as potential herd replacements, are sold as stores. Cattle numbers have been pulled back to free more of the lowland grazings for ewes with twin lambs which could have problems on the hill.

“What happens in the future will depend very much on what happens with the environmental schemes and any subsidies,” says Miss Dickinson. “Like most farmers we have been thinking if we could manage without subsidies if we had to.

Reinvestment

“We are in a better position than many others as we own our farm, but we are continually reinvesting in the farm. Another advantage we have, is we can overwinter all except just a few replacement hoggs on the farm which keeps costs down.

“We have always managed to make a little profit from our farm with the help of subsidies. Sheep and cattle prices have gone up over the past two or three years which have helped, but our input costs have also gone up so everything is relative.

“It seems in most other industries prices are based on costs plus a profit margin, whereas with us the major buyers are controlling our prices. What they have to realise is you can’t chop and change in hill farming and if you take sheep off a fell, then there are real problems putting them back.”

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