9 February 1996

Challenge of locking the fell gate pays off

A fell tick burden has forced one Lancs farm to sell its horned flock and restock with winter-housed Mules. Jeremy Hunt reports in the first of a

regular Upland Focus.

ONE Lancashire hill unit, which no longer grazes any of its 54ha (134 acres) of fell, has replaced horned sheep with productive Mules and now houses 820 ewes for three months of the year.

Although there are still 320 Scottish Blackface ewes at Dinkling Green Farm, close to Chipping in the Trough of Bowland, they are primarily a source of replacements for the 500-strong flock of Mules.

The farm, which is owned by the Duchy of Lancaster and tenanted by Myerscough College, has been managed for the last five years by self-employed shepherd Simon Leigh. His decision to stop using the fell was a controversial one among local farmers.

"The tick problem on the fell land is severe. We were losing substantial numbers of ewes and lambs through louping-ill so we made a policy decision to keep sheep off altogether," says Mr Leigh.

Louping-ill was unconnected to the swing to more Mules but the self-imposed ban on fell grazing – the fell is now within the Countryside Stewardship Scheme – placed increased pressure on stocking rates. Including the colleges 70-100 summered beef cattle, the overall stocking rate is 1.28 livestock grazing units a ha.

"The farm used to produce prime lambs from horned sheep. My aim was to increase profit by improving output. Breeding quality prime lambs from Mule ewes was the way to do it," says Mr Leigh.

Last years performance produced 172% lambs sold per ewes tupped. That included 660 Suffolk and Texel-sired prime lambs and, apart from the 250 Mule gimmer lambs kept as replacements, the rest were sold as stores.

The management challenge of running a half-bred flock on a hill farm was heightened by "locking the gate" to the fell grazings and relying solely on the 89ha (220 acres) of in-bye and around 40ha (100 acres) of rough grazing to support 820 ewes and their lambs.

The farms existing range of in-wintering accommodation held the key. The last five years have seen a substantial increase in Mule numbers from their original 40% inclusion in the flock. All sheep are now housed from around Christmas until lambing in mid-March.

The wet winter of 1994/95 saw sheds full by early December. This year Mules came in just before Christmas and horned sheep a fortnight later. Although various stone barns and buildings have been converted to house ewes, the main shed accommodates two-thirds of the flock.

This low-cost pole-barn type construction is arranged as two buildings each comprising six pens set either side of a 5.5m (18ft) wide concrete feed passage for tractor access.

Each building measures 34m x 7.5m (111ft x 24ft) and pens are bedded with straw every third day. Around 160 bales of straw are used in total each week to bed the entire flock.

High quality silage

Around 450 tonnes of high quality silage is used each winter. This years grass has a D value of 70.5 and was treated with an absorbent. Ewes are floor fed outside the pens once a day and the silage "swept up" to them in mid-afternoon and late evening. Last year lamb sales totalled £34,122. The 1994 gross margin a ewe based on total lamb sales of £29,996, was £46.16.

The flock as a whole was scanned in January at 181%. Scottish Blackface ewes are estimated at 165% and Mules at just under 200%.

"We could not carry a flock of this size if we did not house for almost three months. We have 1400 lambs to turn out in April and soon after that we have to shut a third off for silage as well as cope with 240 gimmer lambs that have been away wintered and the summering cattle," says Mr Leigh. &#42

&#8226 Tick-ridden 54ha (134-acre) fell now part of Countryside Stewardship Scheme.

&#8226 820 ewes and lambs grazed across 89ha (220-acre) in-bye and 40ha (100-acres) rough grazing.

&#8226 500 winter-housed Mules and 320 Scottish Blackface ewes, run as source of replacements for Mule flock, lamb mid March.

&#8226 Ewes housed at Christmas, fed 450t silage over three months and bedded on 160 bales of straw a week.

&#8226 1995 total lamb sales reached £34,122. 1994 gross margin was £46.16 a ewe.

About 450t of silage is required over three months to feed 820 Mules, plus 160 bales of straw a week. Even so, 94s gross margin was £46.16 a ewe.

Simon Leigh, a self-employed shepherd, has managed the farm in the Trough of Bowland for the past five years.