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NEMSA stalwart Richard Hargreaves to judge at Great Yorkshire

Pendle’s Richard Hargreaves, who is judging the North of England Mule classes at this year’s Great Yorkshire Show, remains a dyed-in-the-wool aficionado of Britain’s most popular commercial crossing sheep.

He farms with his brother John and 23-year-old son, Bob, the fourth generation of the family to ply their trade across three-quarters of a century at the 250ha (620-acre) Meadow Bank Farm, Barley, at the foot of world-famous landmark Pendle Hill. Richard’s grandfather, also Bob, was first in line, followed by his own son, yet another Bob.

Attention to breeding detail across many years has paved the way for progress, with the family constantly working to improve the success rate of their pedigree Swaledale and Bluefaced Leicester flocks.

Their present day Meadow Bank Swaledale flock comprises some 400 head pure, plus another 600 for crossing with the Leicester, respective mum and dad to the all-purpose North of England Mule. They acquired their first pen of Swaledale females at the dispersal sale for George Rigg’s Capon Hall flock on Malham Moor, gradually buying in better tups and draft ewes as the flock continued to develop.

Their Barley Bluefaced Leicester flock - there are now some 50 breeding ewes on the ground - began many years ago with the purchase of a single ewe from fellow Red Rose breeder Alan Barnes, Cowden, with further acquisitions of both rams and females from other well-known breeders, among them Gordon Rawsthorne, Lunesdale flock, Carnforth.

Several legendary BFL tups that have worked their magic on the Meadow Bank flock include S1 Lunesdale – “one of the best rams we have ever had,” according to Richard – G35 Midlock and N3 Asby Hall.

Team Hargreaves coups in both the show and sale arena have been plentiful. For example, back in 2016, after standing champion the previous year at the big Kirkby Stephen Swaledale shearling rams fixture, Meadowbank Hallam 11 netted £35,000, while other tups have hit £26,000 and £18,000. A Bull and Cave sire has done particularly well for the family.

Multiple championships have also fallen to Barley Bluefaced Leicesters. Of late, the standout ewe has undoubtedly been Barley H42, now an 8-shear and G35 Midlock daughter who literally swept the board in her showing career. Barley tups have commanded £12,000 and £10,000.

While North of England Mules are not shown to the same extent past championships at both Bentham and Hawes can be accredited to the family, who also sell their annual Mule gimmer lambs crops – around 500 head each year - at the two marts, usually being thereabouts among the top end prices.

Quality breeding remains key to the operation. As Richard explains: “We have a good, strong line of BFL tups and have been able to maintain the white and cleaness in them. They have done really well for us and regular buyers actively seek out our Mule gimmer lambs.

“We started shearing our Mule gimmer lambs a few years ago, but have always left the best 20% with wool on. We were pleasantly surprised at the way they have thrived. Southern buyers in particular love the way they are presented.”

Back in 2007, the brothers decided to try vaccinating 700 of the Swaledale ewes from the crossing flock with ‘Footvax in a bid to eliminate a long-running problem with footrot, creating weeks of extra work, reducing ewe productivity and increasing the culling rate.

The policy has paid rich dividends, with problems virtually eliminated and lameness cured since the vaccination policy was introduced, so much so that for the past three years they have also been vaccinating their Mules, here again with marked success.

Indeed, the overall approach is one of flexibility as – sheared or not – the family never loses sight of the fact that at the end of the day it’s all about catering for and adapting to every conceivable buyer taste and requirement, while constantly seeking to maintain the quality and long-standing appeal of the Mule, a policy still widely and avidly pursued by breed custodians, the North of England Mule Sheep Association (NEMSA), with the Hargreaves family being among its early members when NEMSA was first founded in 1980.

Richard enthuses: “They are a wonderful sheep - prolific, good mothers, milky, constantly producing two fat lambs, easy to work with, easy to handle - superb all-rounders. They have served us well over many generations.”

While Richard’s services as an expert show judge across all three breeds are in wide demand he will be making his debut as an adjudicator in the NEMSA show arena at this year’s Great Yorkshire on the Wednesday, day 2 of the four-day highlight (July 11-14).

He will have plenty of choice across the six show classes for both singles and pairs, from which Richard will then be charged with selecting his overall Mule Breed Champion and recipient of The Jack White Memorial Trophy.

A new online entry system introduced this year saw all classes quickly oversubscribed due to the ongoing popularity of the high profile event, with full capacity achieved within 24hrs for some classes. Because of overwhelming demand new criteria has been put in place to give as many people as possible the opportunity to show.

And what will he be looking for? Richard comments: “Carcase, conformation, a leg in each corner, a lamb with good clean white and presence, good skin and a good fleece.”

Back on the farm, while farming on and around Pendle Hill remains a delight – hoggs have recently gone out to graze on the picture-postcard landmark and weaned ewes will be going out soon - it does unfortunately have its drawbacks and a long-standing pet hate, notably dog walkers who let their pets off the lead, with regular attacks on sheep resulting in fatalities.

As Richard told his local press a while back: “Pendle Hill has always been popular with walkers, but the number we see every day now is bigger than ever. A lot of walkers take their dogs and I have no problem with that so long as they keep them on a lead.” This does, of course, remain a widespread and ongoing problem facing many sheep farmers.

There is little question that the Hargreaves family remain true and dedicated stalwarts of the three ever-popular breeds, though supplemented of late by small flocks of Dutch Spotted and Valais Blacknose sheep – the Lancashire Valais flock – these in the capable hands of Richard and his wife, Angela, son, Bob and twin sister Katy.


Main picture: Bob and Richard Hargreaves, left, with their 2018 North of England Mule gimmer lamb champions at Bentham Auction Mart, joined by co-judges Will Allan and David Buck.

Above: Action in the NEMSA show arena at the 2022 Great Yorkshire Show. Classes were judged by Paul Brown, Ravenstonedale.

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