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When only the best will do - hard work and dedication the key to Yandle family success

Mary Heard of the family run beef and sheep farm near Okehampton in Devon and whose passion is photography, meets fellow Devon farmers Ellen and Tom Yandle. She captures their life in both words and pictures.

When I was asked to go and visit Ellen and Tom at Deer Park Farm, Oxton, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect – the message was ‘they are married but farm separately....’ Well, I was intrigued and interested to find out more!

Upon arrival, it was apparent to see that although the couple have their distinct preferences in sheep breeds, they are, in fact, very much a team. Ellen is a lifelong North of England Mule fan. Tom’s preference has always been his mixed flock of Dorsets, Dorset Mules and Suffolk Mules which number around 1,150.

While there is a palpable competitive streak at talk of selling lambs, when it comes to the smooth running of the enterprise both are so in tune with one another that they know exactly the other one’s preferences right down to when it comes to the ewes and rams they buy. It soon became clear to me that their separateness is, in fact, very much a togetherness. “We work alongside one another and each helps the other one,” says Ellen.

Mules have featured in Ellen’s life long before her marriage to Tom. Her parents kept them on the family farm at South Molton on the edge of Exmoor. Whilst they dabbled in Scotch Mules, they soon gravitated back to the North of England Mules as they felt they milked just that little bit better in their circumstances. “I’ve grown up with Mules,” says Ellen,“they are just so easy to handle.” It’s plain to see that when Tom married Ellen, he was going to have to take on her Mules too!

When Ellen first met Tom she was invited down to Oxton to help with lambing one afternoon. She soon proved herself to be good farmer’s wife material as she got stuck right in in the lambing shed and knew exactly what to do. The rest is history and now Ellen and Tom work together on their 350 acre farm close to the South Devon coast. They also rent a further 400 acres from nearby Powderham Estate and use this to graze sheep all year.

The area is very dry and prone to burning in the summer, so grass can be in short supply at times. The soil is good though and allows the couple to grow 90 acres of barley - they sell the grain but keep the straw for their own use.

The farm also supports 140-150 acres of forage crops, swedes and kale, plus another nine or so acres of fodder beet. The latter used to be bought in, but the sheep took to it very well, so three years ago Tom decided to grow it himself for the first time. It’s harvested, clamped under straw and fed from around January to March to the ewes as they lamb. The forage crops are strip grazed from mid January. “All this helps to cut the cake bill a bit,” says Tom. The farm supports one cut of grass, which is baled mainly as haylage and some hay “Tom’s Dorsets are a bit fussy so prefer haylage, but my Mules will eat anything!” smiled Ellen.

Ellen and Tom have two budding young farmers – their children Hannah, 9, and Ben, 7. Hannah is the sheep lady, but Ben has been the instigator of the latest acquisitions to the farm – a mix of 20 Belgian Blue and Simmental calves, which arrived in time for his birthday! These are the first cattle to come onto the farm since Tom’s father sold the suckler herd following the drought of 1976. Since then, the concentration has been on sheep with a bit of arable. However, now the plan is to rear and fatten these calves, with maybe more to follow.

The Yandle’s farm was historically home to the deer on the Oxton Estate. Over time, the estate’s land has been split up and sold off, with the main house being turned into apartments. Tom’s parents bought Deer Park Farm, which they ran along with nearby Black Forest Farm. When Tom and Ellen got married, they moved into and took over the running of Deer Park Farm.

The formula according to Ellen

So to Ellen’s Mules. She keeps around the 300 mark and buys in her replacement shearlings from the Mule sale at Exeter in August under the very able eye of auctioneer, Russell Steer. This year she aims to buy about 60-80 as she’s been quite ruthless on the older members of her flock given the buoyant market for cull ewes of 2022 so far.

“I like to aim to buy the top end shearlings,” said Ellen, who ideally tries to buy from the same vendors each year. Her choice would be Mules from Emily Pearse or Maurice Hawkridge, both of whom buy ewe lambs from the North then sell them on as shearlings in the South. To top up numbers, Ellen also buys in a few Mule hogg single couples in April, again at Exeter. In 2021, Ellen’s shearlings cost her on average £200 – her maxim being: “You’ve got to spend to get good lambs.”

Ellen’s chosen ram breeds are primarily Suffolk with the odd Chartex thrown it to sweep up too. (These Chartex are also used to go on the children’s small flock of Blue Texels). She’s found that Suffolks are reliably good at producing lambs which reach a desired weight quickly.

Depending on the year, too, she can also hit either the fat lamb market or the breeding market with her ewe lambs. This year, as long as the fat prices stay good, everything will go this way.

Ellen’s rams go in with the ewes towards the end of August to start lambing later in January. finishing around April time. This follows neatly on from Tom’s lambing sequence, which he starts in November with his Dorsets and progresses through the Dorset and Suffolk Mules in December/early January.

Again, Ellen buys her rams from Exeter market at the NSA sale held there in August. Amongst her breeders of preference are the Derrymans from Honiton. She quite regularly will spend around 800gns for rams to ensure her best chances of getting good, strong lambs. When choosing her rams, she recalls the words of a wise old local farmer: “Buy what’s in front of you.” So she isn’t influenced on paperwork and bloodlines in particular – if the ram is a good strong beast with the best of conformation, it is guaranteed to catch her eye.

Ellen’s Mules routinely scan around the 200% mark. “I don’t want any more than this,” she says. “I prefer to have a good, strong single or double than triplets.” Lambing in January means the percentage sticks closer to 200, plus Ellen gets to catch the early market with her lambs.

Both Ellen and Tom lamb their ewes indoors as you would expect at that time of year. The sheds are in a slightly cold position in a valley at the farm. However, if the weather is dry the lambs go out straight away. For worse conditions, the lambs are taken to their other farm, Black Forest Farm, which nearly neighbours them at home. Here they will go into nursery pens of about 10 ewes until weather permits them to be turned out.

As we all know, lambing time is pretty intense and Ellen and Tom dig in for the long haul, sharing night shifts between them. During the days, they are helped by their full-time workman, plus one other who comes in and does the routine, yet vital jobs of cleaning and disinfecting pens, as well as feeding and watering everything. Every ewe will go into a clean pen to minimise infection risk. The couple hate to lose any lamb – “you put time and money into keeping the sheep so why waste it? You don’t get paid for a dead lamb,” which are very true words.

Another positive which comes from a 200% lambing is very few tame lambs. If there are any, Ellen will try to rub a lamb in with a single. She likes to turn every ewe away with a double if at all possible. However, there will always be the odd lamb which ends up in the orphan pen. She’s very proud of the fact that one such lamb topped out at £150 in the fatstock market in June at Exeter.

Ellen strives for big strong lambs at birth, so will feed the ewes prior to lambing. Nothing goes away to keep at winter, but they are fed whilst outside with the good haylage made on the farm earlier in the year. They will also be topped up with ewe nuts at 18% protein.

The ewes are brought in three weeks before lambing to allow them to settle and therefore avoiding twin lamb disease. From this point, the concentrates for the singles is reduced, but not cut out completely. By keeping the cake in front of the ewes, not only are the lambs born fighting fit, but they should receive top-notch colostrum and milk. If for any reason one needs a helping hand, Ellen ensures it has artificial colostrum, but this is rarely needed.

The Mules run with their lambs either at the home farms or at keep at Powderham. The lambs will have access to a blended creep-based feed from the age of three weeks. Ellen doesn’t tend to wean her lambs, but picks them straight from the ewe, then directly to market 10 minutes up the road in Exeter.

Beating the other half!

She aims to start selling lambs around the middle of April at weights between 44 and 50kg. This year, her first 17 lambs went on April 17th, with her most recent consignments averaging £151 on June 6th and a pen of Suffolk Mule lambs hitting £170 on June 27th. “I even beat Tom that week,” Ellen said with a grin. I can sense there is often a bit of friendly rivalry between Ellen and Tom on market days to see who can achieve the highest price.

However, not all years are the same and sometimes if there is a dry, hot spell the grass doesn’t grow fast enough to sustain both ewes and lambs, so Ellen takes the lambs home to fatten in the shed on a blend. Her aim is to get them gone by mid-August – all as heavy lambs to market. She doesn’t sell as store or send any deadweight.

So now, the ewes relax for the summer and dry off in time to go to the ram again as August wears on. They are kept up to date with all their vaccinations and minerals – anything which is bought in is innoculated against abortion and everything gets Heptavac and a mineral bolus in November before they come in.

The soil at Deer Park Farm is very sandy, so there is a tendency to be a lack of selenium. Ellen prefers boluses to mineral lick buckets so that she knows everything has been treated thoroughly. “It may take longer, but I like to make time to do a job properly,” she says.

I soon picked up from my chat with Ellen and Tom that they really do put a lot of hard work and dedication into running their farm. They quietly, yet confidently aim high and you get the feeling that they have the admirable approach that only the best will do. They are prepared to put in the hours and think nothing of a 4.30am start on market days to ensure the work is done first.

To wind down and change the scenery a bit, Ellen enjoys making use of the nearby bike trails in Haldon Forestry. This is something the children join in on too. She is also proud of her sheep dogs and has bred and kept puppies from the same line since she was 10 years old.

This started with a brown collie from Victor Pitts. She trains her dogs herself and you can see the bond is strong between her and her canine workmates. Just recently she has bought in some new blood in the form of Missey, who is a one-year-old and learning the ropes (with some ideas of her own at the moment too!). But everyone is excited at the prospect of welcoming yet another new addition to the pack in the near future when the cycle is complete and a brown collie bitch pup arrives at Deer Park, again from Victor Pitts.

It was a real pleasure to spend the morning learning about Ellen, Tom and their respective sheep, and to have the privilege of being shown around their lovely farm in the amazing undulating landscape in Devon between forestry and coast. It is good to see the two different flocks running side by side and the hard work put into both. Ellen is clearly smitten with her Mules – she nurtures them, always wills them to do well and is rightly proud of them when they invariably do. I’d hazard a guess that North of England Mules are now a well and truly permanent fixture at Deer Park Farm!

Pictures: Ellen and Tom Yandle with their dogs, and some of the sheep they expertly farm in picture-postcard countryside overlooking Exmouth/Dawlish Warren.

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