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Lambing results looking good for NEMSA breeders and users

While the nation continues to present a brave face during the Covid-19 lockdown, hundreds of sheep farmers and their families UK-wide have been busy lambing in splendid self-isolation in what many have long termed their annual lockdown period!

There is little doubt that the recent prolonged dry and sunny weather has proved of great benefit to the 2020 lambing season, with plenty of fit and healthy lambs on the ground.

Another boost is the welcome news that auction marts across the country have now been allowed to resume breeding sheep sales of ewes with lambs at foot, albeit still under strictly controlled conditions governing both vendors and buyers alike.

In common with other breed societies, early feedback about the latest lambing time from members of the North of England Mule Sheep Association (NEMSA) is upbeat.

National chairman Chris Harrison, who farms in Cumbria at Coatlith Hill, Alston, described lambing as “probably the best in my living memory.” Living at 1,200ft above sea level, the family doesn’t start lambing Swaledales until April, first to the Bluefaced Leicester to produce North of England Mules, then ewes to the Swaledale tups a week later. At the end of April there were around 50 of the 650-strong Swaledale ewe flock still to lamb.

Third generation Mule breeder Mr Harrison, now joined by the fourth generation in his son Richard, said: “The ewes were in excellent condition and scanned at 150%, so I fully expect there will be an abundance of lambs this autumn for our high profile annual gimmer lamb sale season. Let’s hope there will be plenty of buyers with plenty of grass too - always assuming and, of course, hoping there will be some sort of normality by then.”

There was a similar story from NEMSA’s vice-chairman Jonathan Hodgson, who farms at High Borrans, Windermere. He commented: “Lambing is going really well. The weather has been fantastic, the sheep are fit and we have a good crop of lambs.”

Way down country in North Devon, long-time North of England Mule users, husband and wife Bryan and Liz Griffiths, of Southcott Farm, Burrington, also report some positive lambing results following their yearly trip up north last September to buy 80 ewe lambs at the official NEMSA sale at J36 Kendal, among them an annual pen from Jonathan Hodgson.

Mr Griffiths, current chairman of the National Sheep Association (NSA), said: “The consequence of a good autumn has led to a bumper crop of lambs with many Mule ewe hoggs conceiving twins and even triplets. They had earlier scanned at 170%, with five carrying triplets and just three empty. Currently, 42 are rearing twins with supplementary feed.”

The couple also continue to make good and profitable use of their Mule hoggs and feel it is a lesson other users could learn much from. Mr Griffiths explained: “We have allowed Mule hoggs to rear twins for some years and have found that, if managed correctly, it is not detrimental to the longevity or performance of the whole flock.

“All Mule ewes, including two-tooths (shearlings), which are managed as a separate flock until lambing the following year, scanned at 218%, while the two-tooths themselves scanned at 184%, with 25-30% of them also having reared twins as hoggs last year. Hoggs rearing doubles receive supplementary feed post lambing, with their lambs creep fed and weaned early.”

Back up north, at the other end of the spectrum, long-standing NEMSA members Ron and Fran Wilson, of Armathwaite in the Eden Valley, still keep their hands in by running a small flock North of England Mules, which lamb in a local field owned by Cumbrian-based agricultural photo journalist Jennifer MacKenzie and husband Rod. The two families have known each other for many years.

The Wilsons are utilising the MacKenzie pastures for home-bred Mule hoggs which were put for the first time last year to a Beltex-cross ram purchased from Cumbrian breeder Michael Lawson, who farms in Cockermouth.

“I like the shape of the Beltex – they are just the right size for tupping Mule hoggs and they have lambed nicely at around 175%. The plan is to retain some of the gimmers in the flock,” explained Mr Wilson.

Much earlier, for 12 years the couple owned and worked Low Tipalt Farm, a traditional Northumberland hill farm running to just over 600 acres at Greenhead, a small village in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall, breeding North of England Mules from their own Bluefaced Leicester and Swaledale flocks. At its peak the Swaledale flock numbered 600 ewes.

While farming there, for five consecutive years the Wilsons won the breed championship at Lazonby Auction Mart when showing and selling their Mule ewe lambs at the annual autumn highlights.

However, they were to progress to even greater heights in the show arena not long after moving lock, stock and barrel in 2003 to their present smallholding at Carrholme. Three years later, they won the first of what was to become a total of nine Great Yorkshire Show supreme championships with their Mules, plus a hat-trick of supreme successes at the Royal Highland.

And while they are now farming on a much smaller scale – Mr Wilson also works in the building trade - the couple clearly retain an inbuilt passion for the all-purpose North of England Mule. “They have always served us really well, being really nice sheep and good to work with,” said Mr Wilson.

The Wilsons remain members of NEMSA’s Lazonby branch and retain their original flock number 1852. In the past, they also regularly supplied Mules for the NEMSA show stand at major NSA showcases such as Scotsheep and North Sheep.

Pictured: 1/ NEMSA chairman Chris Harrison. 2/ NSA national chairman Bryan Griffiths and his wife Liz with some of their Mules at Southcott. 3/ Ron and Fran Wilson’s North of England Mule hoggs with Beltex-cross twin lambs in the MacKenzie field at Armathwaite.

(picture by Jennifer MacKenzie). 4/ Ron and Fran Wilson with one of their many supreme champion North of England Mules at the Great Yorkshire Show.

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