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Full speed ahead for NEMSA lambing season

While many lowland sheep farmers across the UK have already completed or are nearing the end of the of the 2021 lambing season, the more up country custodians of the countryside, among them members of NEMSA – the North of England Mule Sheep Association - are still in full swing now that Spring has finally sprung on the northern hills.

The curators of the all-purpose North of England Mule ewe are once again hoping for plenty of fit and healthy lambs on the ground, though last year will certainly take some beating. Despite Covid-19 and the national lockdown – sheep farmers are, of course, familiar with self-isolation during lambing time! – NEMSA’s national chairman, Chris Harrison, described 2020 lambing as “probably the best in my living memory.”

Thankfully, signs are again looking good, according to Mr Harrison, a third generation sheep man who farms in Cumbria at Coatlith Hill, Alston, and again started lambing the family’s small flock of 55 NEMSA Mules, which are in lamb to the Dutch Spotted Texel, though not scanned, at the beginning of April.

His 350 Swaledale ewes that go to the Bluefaced Leicester ram to produce the hardy and bountiful North of England Mule were due to lamb from April 6 and have scanned at 164%, followed four days later by a further 250 ewes to the Swaledale tup, all lambed outdoors and scanned at 147%.

Mr Harrison said: “I’m very happy with the scanning results considering the ewes tupped to the Swale spend all their lives at 1,300 feet and more above sea level on heather and rough allotments.

“The winter has been relatively kind, the snow came in January and February as it should and the worst thing that could happen is a snowy late April ... the beast from the east is still in the memory! All that we all want now is weather similar to last year, surely not too much to ask!”

He further noted: “Prime lamb trade remains strong and hopefully this will continue through the summer. If travel restrictions abroad remain in place, UK restaurants, hotels and B&B’s should certainly benefit, with more people eating out and having BBQs, with any luck all cooking British Lamb!”

NEMSA’s vice-chairman, fellow Cumbrian Jonathan Hodgson, who farms at High Borrans, Windermere, commented:Sheep are in good fettle and have wintered well. We also started lambing at the beginning of April and are looking forward to seeing how the new tups perform.

“We have scanned 1,020 Swaledale ewes at 168% in lamb to the Bluefaced Leicester for our Mules and 234 kept pure that have scanned at 165%.We have very few barren ewes and a lot less triplets, so overall it’s a good scan.”

He added: “Having a connection with a local market it’s great to see fat lambs making a good price, particularly NEMSA wether lambs.”

Both breed and association appear in fine heart. The North of England Mule ewe remains Britain’s most prolific sheep breed in terms of numbers and the country’s most popular commercial sheep for crossing purposes, while NEMSA is one of the UK’s biggest and strongest sheep breed associations with a membership steady around the 1,000 mark.

Recently, Eden Farm Supplies, one of the North of England’s best-known agricultural supply firms, based in Winton between Kirkby Stephen and Brough, was welcomed on board as a new sponsor, complementing long-time sponsor, farmer-owned animal identification and management systems company Shearwell Data.

The association has cemented both its working and trading partnership with the latter. From this year, Shearwell Data has agreed to collect the NEMSA levy on tags, 100% of which will be paid to the association, as well as continuing to provide sheep tags at a considerably subsidised rate to NEMSA members.

“Shearwell Data is proud of the affiliation it has with NEMSA and its members and the team wish all a good lambing and profitable year ahead,” said a company spokesperson. Mr Harrison remarked: “The relationship with Shearwell has grown and evolved over the years to the benefit of both organisations and we look forward to forging a similar partnership with Eden Farm Supplies.”

In the interim, lambing proceeds apace, while work both on and off the farm continues as always through the summer months – with any luck taking in some enjoyable and well-earned breaks with the hoped-for resumption of local and regional agricultural shows.

Then it’s on to the high profile and always much anticipated keynote autumn North of England Mule show and sale season at the major northern auction marts, most notably the flagship gimmer lamb highlights.

Auctioneers were upbeat after a highly successful 2020 sales season, praising both the performance and renewed popularity of the breed in the sales ring. One described the North of England Mule as the ‘queen of commercial lowland breeding sheep.’

A second noted that ‘after a couple of years of some sheep producers looking to alternative breeds, the North of England Mule gimmer lamb bounced back to prove herself as possibly the most resilient long-standing and prolific breeding sheep in the UK.’

Mr Harrison concluded: “We are looking forward to the 2021 autumn sales with a good degree of confidence. One thing’s for sure – all Mule breeders will again be pulling out all the stops to ensure their charges get to both show and sales rings in peak condition.

“Importantly, only sheep bearing the NEMSA tag can be sold through official NEMSA sales. This is a cast iron guarantee of both provenance and quality - and one of the main reasons buyers come flocking back year on year from all parts of the country to replenish stocks of the North of England Mule, unarguably still one of the best all-rounders in the business. We look forward to welcoming them one and all.”

Pictures: Long-standing NEMSA members and multi award-winning North of England Mule aficionados Ron and Fran Wilson, of Carrholme, Armathwaite in the Eden Valley, continue to run a small a small flock of Mules, which lamb in a local field owned by Cumbrian-based agricultural photo journalist Jennifer MacKenzie and husband Rod. Here are some of this year’s crop – a ewe with her twin Texel-cross lambs at foot (pic 1) and a shearling with twin Texel-sired lambs (pic 2).

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