Meet Jonny Mattacola – a master of both the mulish teenager and the North of England Mule sheep!
The all-purpose North of England Mule continues to hit all the right notes for music teacher and part-time, but horizon-spreading sheep farmer Jonny Mattacola.
The 45-year-old, who lives near Northampton and - when not in lockdown - teaches Music and Drama at a secondary school in South Warwickshire, first started keeping Mules in 2013, sourcing them from a well-known member of the North of England Mule Sheep Association (NEMSA). They were out of the Northumberland Blackface.
In 2019, Mr Mattacola put some 300 ewes to his tups. They comprised 135 Mules and home-bred Texel-x- Mules, and 165 Aberfield-x-Romney theaves. After scanning at 192%, he sold off around 100 in-lamb Mules due to the sale of the buildings he previously rented for indoor lambing.
The remaining Mules were all lambed outside in early March and despite the stormy weather Mr Mattacola said they had all done well, rearing their lambs with no losses. Bought specifically for outdoor lambing and scanning at 20% less, the Aberfield-crosses also lambed well, although the mild winter meant the ewes were in good condition, which caused a few too many difficult singles’ lambings.
Lambing the Mules outside has been a first and Mr Mattacola said he is now definitely a fan, commenting: “The ewes’ natural instincts can really be seen – for example, finding a lambing spot away from the flock and remaining until the lambs are mobile.
“All the lambs have been strong and healthy – having been born outside they just seem to be more mobile and resilient. The Aberfield-cross flock had around 10% lambing losses, which is reasonable, but the good news is every lamb born live has stayed live.”
Brought up in a village near Leamington Spa, Mr Mattacola gained a taste for farming when helping out with lambing and calving on a local farm at weekends and holidays, plus other sheep work during the summer break - jabbing, dipping, shearing, and hay and straw carting.
He explained: “I always wanted to be a farmer or even a farm vet, but at the time there was little opportunity to progress these dreams or own land. So I studied music at Leeds College of Music, gaining a First.
“Being a country boy at heart, I worked part-time on a farm on the Bramham Estate, mainly in a cross-country/hunting livery yard, which gave me a break from the city. During Masters studies, I was asked to do some music teaching, found I had the knack, so ended up qualifyng as a teacher and moving back to Warwickshire. It’s a rural school, so I see a lot of my students and their families at Rugby Farmers Mart.”
Keeping sheep came randomly. “Having also helped out a mate with his suckler herd, he suggested I keep some sheep. I’d worked mainly with Mules, so in 2013 I ended up buying a pen of ewe lambs,” said Mr Mattacola.
It proved a steep learning curve. “Initially the group was 26, but once I get an idea I tend to run with it and so I ended up buying some in-lamb theaves as well. While I was okay with lambing and the aftercare I had to swot-up on everything else.
“I love learning, so this wasn’t a problem and I’d pick the brains of other shepherds and nick/swap ideas, advidly reading ‘The Sheep Keepers Veteriniary Handbook’, picking the brains of the vet, scouring the Farmers Forum and the like,” he further explained.
Mr Mattacola’s affinity with the North of England Mule soon hit new heights. Always lambing in the Easter holidays, which means keeping a different diary every year, as the flock grew he stepped down from leadership responsibilities in school – “sheep don’t answer back!” – and now teaches part-time mornings only. On top of this, over the last three years he’s been contract shepherding for local farms.
He likes to think he’s progressive and forward thinking when it comes to his own philosophy on farming, trying to make the system work and pay.
Commenting further on the success of his first foray into outdoor lambing of Mules for the first time, among them some aged ewes. Mr Mattacola said: “The Mules have done the job perfectly. I’ve fed them at first light so they expect me and then just driven around the flock at lunch and before dark. All the ewes have had multiple crops, so know what they are doing, and I only had to intervene with one set of big, jumbled twins.
“Furthermore, the lambs are easy to catch in the first 48-hours to tail etc. The system has worked great and I am now wondering why I put myself through the indoor lambing rigmarole before, with midnight, then 4am checks, after which trying to be nice to teenagers at school is a big ask! However, the adrenaline gets you through.”
Mr Mattacola explained that while he still likes teaching and working with teenagers, it can be a draining and thankless task at times, though he feels massively proud when students pull great performances out of the hat.
But times may well be changing, as Mr Mattacola reflected that he is now unsure whether his long-term future will be in teaching, particularly as the curriculum gets evermore squeezed due to funding deficits.
He commented: “I love nothing more than being in the fields, with just me, the Collies and the sheep, so I may need to reinvent myself in more ways than one. While I love working sheep all day, I have no real interest in tractor driving for long hours, so probably I’m not a ‘real’ farmer!
“I rent land and the farm I am based on is currently being prepared for sale so I am keen to make outdoor lambing work in order to keep my own flock. Having said that, rented ground comes and goes, so it is difficult to plan too far ahead.”
“Long term, I think I might look more into shepherding for other people on a more seasonal basis – for example, growing on breeding stock or the like. I may also keep buying ewe lambs and sell them as in-lamb theaves, and end up with a more tranisent flock – unless I find more permanent rented ground.”
In the interim, Mr Mattacola’s love affair with the North of England Mule continues. He enthused: “For me, the Mule is high output/high input. They don’t carry condition so need looking after, but if you can do this they will look after their lambs due to being so milky. In addition, the Mule has every maternal attribute you need and so the lambs grow on well – one year I never lost one lamb from birth to market.”
“Mule ewes are generally easy to lamb – even when you have to intervene. I shepherd for a farm with Texel and Beltex-crosses producing posh, market-topping lambs and they have no room whatseoever for manoeuvre and are sometimes too posh to push. Having said that, producing posh lambs led to me being asked to judge the NSA Ram Fair in 2019, which was a brand-new and thoroughly rewarding experience.”
“However, it’s always a relief to come back to lambing Mules later in the season. All my lambs are sold fat by Christmas – even the triplets. I tend to sell lambs to Farmers Fresh and find they generally achieve R grades, then at Rugby Mart later in the year when they put more fat on. Obviously finished weight increases with the season, but I’m usually aiming at 45kg on average.”
Part-time or not, Mr Mattacola has clearly tailored his farming interests to his own particular needs. He pointed out: “On the subject of triplets, and due to my time-constraints – for example, cade lambs are an expensive hassle - I leave triplets on/graze them separately, unless there is a problem, and feed the ewes/give the lambs creep.
“I use Beltex and Charollais tups on the ewe lambs, and Abertex (Innovis Texels) on the ewes. I’m a big fan of Texel-x-Mule ewes and keep these back. I’ve sold these with lambs at foot at Rugby to generate some cash for winter feed costs.”
Longevity is also a keynote consideration for Mr Mattacola. He said: “I have two seven-crop ewes from the original ewe lambs I brought back in 2013 – so they last. This is the first year I’ve sold some in-lamb ewes, as previously the ewe lambs have always stayed in my flock throughout their working life, except when needing a bit of cash turnover.”
“I love the fact that sheep get to know and trust you when they stay in your flock, which makes working with them easier. And some old ewes have been sold to local equine friends as both pets/lawn mowers!”
“In my view, biggest isn’t necessarily best and I feel it’s important that the the original traits of the North of England Mule are not overshadowed by becoming a beauty pageant. In other words, breeders need to be strict about what enters the breeding flock – not just select on looks.”
“Mules are pretty ubiqitous here in the Midlands and people keep coming back for more, so breeders must be doing the right thing. In my opinion, a medium sized ewe will still produce two lambs, but will eat a little less, so that makes sense. Occasionally, I have brought additional big, expensive theaves and they haven’t produced anymore, so for me a more ‘average’/naturally grown ewe is fine.
“People always comment that I have good ewes. I buy tupping ewe lambs, probably not the biggest, but they all grow on well and aren’t pushed, so the growth is both natural and sustainable.”
Picture: Jonny Mattacola is pictured with some of his resilient North of England Mules during a rare spell of winter weather – and again with some of his latest crop.