Harrison family traditions
continue to pay dividends
July 14, 2020
NEMSA chairman Chris Harrison and family are the subject for this article written by our great friend Jennifer MacKenzie for Northern Farmer and we thank both for allowing us to post on the new-look NEMSA website
The traditional sheep system operated by five generations in succession of one family on a traditional high hill farm on Alston Moor continues to pay its way. Chris and Marion Harrison and their son Richard farm 1,200 acres of moorland and SDA land at Coatlith Hill, Alston, running Swaledale and North of England Mule ewes alongside a herd of suckler cows.
The ground, which includes 250 acres of rented land, runs up to 1,700ft above sea level and Chris says the traditional system of running Swaledales and breeding Mules is the most suited to the farm and its environment.
Earlier this year Chris was elected chairman of the North of England Mule Sheep Association, following in the footsteps of his father, Neville, now 84, who was the first secretary of the association when it was formed in 1980 to promote the Swaledale and Hexham Blackface Bluefaced Leicester cross.
When he took over the chair of the association he said: “My immediate aim is to follow in the footsteps of my illustrious predecessors and continue their fine work in promoting both the association and the breed at every opportunity in times of continuing uncertainty.”
It has around 1,000 fully paid up active members as well as associated members and it has gone from breaking even financially to showing a healthy profit.
Close on 150,000 NEMSA-tagged ewe lambs went under the hammer last year, very similar to 2018.
Chris has a long association with the organisation and Mule breeding, being a former chairman of NEMSA’s Lazonby branch.
“My great grandfather, Richard came to Alston in 1930 when the Catholic Trust was the biggest landowner on Alston Moor at the time and they were looking to find tenants,” said Chris.
“Richard had seven sons and he put three of them onto the trust’s farms - one of them was my grandfather, Stanley - who started breeding Mules.”
The Harrisons took the opportunity of buying Coatlith Hill in 2005 and Chris and Marion moved there from Blackhouse Farm, Alston, which was sold. The majority of the 1,200 acres farmed by the Harrisons is moorland and SDA and this includes allotment land and hay meadows. It is in Higher Level Stewardship which has been extended for another year.
The farm carries 600 Swaledale ewes and 50 Mules alongside a herd of 20 Limousin cross suckler cows producing suckled calves which are sold at 12 months old through Borderway, Carlisle.
Replacement heifer calves are bought in from dairy farmer Mike Hayton, at Peastree, Durdar, Carlisle where the Mule ewes and Swaledale ewes in lamb to the Bluefaced Leicester are overwintered each year.
The Swaledale flock’s breeding goes back to Chris’s great grandfather Richard and it still carries the horn burn, RH. The only new blood introduced to the flock is one bought in tup shearling each year. These are bought from the Swaledale Sheep Breeders’ Association sale at St John’s Chapel from known breeders. Chris looks for a big-framed sheep and aims to breed long-lived ewes - some in the flock are 10 years old.
Of the Swaledales, 250 are bred pure and 350 go to the Bluefaced Leicester tup to breed Mules. Bluefaced Leicester tups are mainly bought-in.
Each year 220 Mule gimmers are sold through NEMSA’s sales at Lazonby, many going to regular buyers and lowland sheep producers who Chris likes to follow up with to see how the sheep are doing.
“The demand for North of England Mules continues to be strong and long may it last. We’re hoping the auction marts are up and running for this year’s sales in September where there will be a good selection after a productive lambing this spring.”
Last year the Mule flock was crossed with the Dutch Spotted Texel which has produced some prime lambs with good conformation.
The ewes are wintered away with the tups at the beginning of November and they return at the beginning of February and they are run on the allotment ground as no sheep can go on the 800 acres of fell from November 1 to April 1.
Lambing begins with the Mules ewes ist aprl ewes in lamb to leicester on April 6 pure breds a week later on the allotment land with the Swaledales carrying singles lambed at 1,500ft on rushy ground.
Scanned lambing percentages are 155% for the Swaledales in lamb to the Leicester and 120% for those bred pure which Chris says is what he wants for the farm.
“The sheep are cheap to keep and pay their way. I reckon even with the wintering costs that it averages £20 to keep a ewe from the beginning of November to lambing time. We stop feeding the Swaledales with singles. The Mules get 1lb a head of 18% protein sheep rolls through a snacker.
“It’s a very traditional hill farm and it’s a tough environment with restrictions on what we can do on our better ground such as fertiliser use imposed by the HLS scheme. I have never considered any other breeds of sheep,” said Chris. “I think the North of England Mule is the best crossing sheep there is. The Mule works so why change the system?”