9 November 2001

F&M cull results in restructuring flock and reducing size

By Jeremy HuntNorth-west correspondent

REDUCING dependency on away-wintering, changing breeding strategy and keeping a close eye on markets are just some of the ways in which one Lancs sheep unit is adapting to life after contiguous culling.

Thomas Binns, Downham, Clitheroe, is determined to turn the trauma of the foot-and-mouth crisis into an opportunity to restructure his hill farm.

Hecklin Farm lost 3300 ewes and lambs, plus hoggs and 35 suckler cows and calves in mid-June when the holding became a victim of the contiguous cull policy.

While hopes are high that sheep will soon be able to return to this 480ha (1200 acre) farm on Lord Clitheroes Downham Estate, the breed profile of the new flock will be restructured and numbers reduced.

The flock used to comprise 1000 Swaledale ewes with 500 crossed to produce Mule lambs. All Mule gimmers were used as replacements for a 500-ewe Mule flock which was run with Suffolk tups.

Over recent years the flock was expanded to maintain income from reduced sheep returns. It was a policy that required renting a large acreage of winter keep.

About 400ha (1000 acres) of additional grazing were needed. As a result, blocks of keep were taken as far as 100 miles away in addition to land nearer home.

All away-wintered sheep were back at Hecklin Farm by May, but in mid-June the unit fell victim to the contiguous cull following the Settle F&M outbreak and almost all stock was slaughtered. The only animals to escape were 500 Mules and 30 suckler cows grazing land that escaped the contiguous boundary.

"Because a large proportion of the sheep were breeding stock, we opted to treat our valuation on a herd basis. However, that meant we couldnt replace the flock in its entirety for five years without being hit hard by income tax."

The sheep flock will be reduced to 1000 breeding ewes – ultimately an equal split between Swaledales and Mules – but short-term will not include horned sheep.

Initially, Mr Binns intended to rebuild over time, but anticipation of high demand for Mule breeding ewes next autumn has provided an added impetus to restocking.

"Suckler cow numbers will be reduced to 35 and we will finish more store cattle at grass. A reduced stocking rate will also lead to more lambs being finished on farm. We will only take half the previous acreage for away-wintering sheep and limit that to land we can rent locally."

But no Swaledale ewes will be brought back to graze moorland at Hecklin Farm until prices have returned to a more normal level.

"The moor may stay empty for a year and I may opt for an interim hill breed. I cannot see any justification for paying hundreds of £s for Swaledale ewes."

The 500 Mule breeding sheep which escaped the cull will become the new flocks foundation. In addition, 200 Mule gimmer lambs and 100 Mule shearlings were bought in early autumn in anticipation of a restocking delivery date before Christmas.

Mule lambs will be grazed on moorland next summer before sale as shearlings. "This is not a market we traditionally venture into, but short-term it seems a better option than sinking cash into Swaledales.

"However, if there is a correlation between the value of Mule shearlings and horned sheep next autumn, we will review our restructuring plan."

Balancing ewe premium has also been an important consideration. The farm had quota for 1775 sheep, but after culling it was only carrying 500.

"Leasing quota out at £1-2/unit was not worth considering. Because we move to a likely fixed headage rate system for next year, which may be worth £15-20/ewe, we must use quota. But autumn movement restrictions will make this difficult."

To help maintain ewe numbers, Suffolk-sired gimmers bred from the Mule flock – originally destined as prime lamb – have been retained. They will be over-wintered and sold as shearlings next season.

"We aim to get the farm business up and running as quickly as possible and although we have a long-term restructuring plan, short term we must be prepared to adapt to where we see the best returns.

"Our goal is to run 500 Swaledale ewes and 500 Mule ewes. But it doesnt matter whether it takes a few years to replace the hill flock as long as the farm can earn an income from a less conventional market focused stocking regime in the meantime." &#42

HILLRESTRUCTURING

&#8226 Reduce away-wintering.

&#8226 Balance ewe premium.

&#8226 Re-evaluate breed.