8 March 2002

Regaining lost ground

will be far from easy

Foot-and-mouth didnt just

wipe out half a million

Swaledale sheep, it

eradicated centuries of

shepherding skills, breeding

and heftedness. Regaining

the lost ground wont be

easy, reports Jeremy Hunt

THE cobbled yards and empty pens at Kirkby Stephen Auction Mart look eerily pristine. There was a deathly quiet here last autumn. No sheep, no men, no Cumbria crack.

But of all the tens of thousands of sheep traditionally gathered from north country fell farms and trailered here to this ancient market, its the Swaledale tups that reign supreme.

Kirkby Stephen Auction Mart, just off the main street of this small east Cumbria town, is hallowed ground for those who breed the indomitable Swaledale. For longer than most can remember the auctioneers rostrum, the sawdust-strewn ring and the rails around that support men and sticks have witnessed the finest tups come under the hammer.

In the past Swaledale tups put before this judge and jury of breeders have sold at prices that can sometimes defy logic. Generations of farming families from the core of the Swaledale fraternity have invested heavily in rams in pursuit of perfection.

But no one bargained for foot-and-mouth. October 2001 came and went without one of the most important gatherings in the northern sheep producers calendar. The three-day Swaledale tup sale at Kirkby Stephen was far more than just another of the casualties of the F&M crisis.

Those who make the annual pilgrimage to Kirkby Stephen to pay homage to the Swaledale cannot remember a year when the northern fells were so bared and emptied of the sheep they respect and revere.

During the F&M crisis over 40% of Britains Swaledale ewes were slaughtered. Most were in lamb; even new-born lambs fell victim to a deathly jab of barbiturate and dispatched in the name of disease prevention. It was a carnage that no toughened Swaledale flockmaster could ever have imagined.

Dominant breed

Before F&M there were an estimated one million Swaledale ewes in Britain; they were the dominant breed in the north of England and, apart from the Herdwick, the Swaledale is acknowledged as the hardiest of all the hill breeds. It can withstand extreme conditions of weather and poor quality grazing and yet it can emerge from the rigours of winter ready to produce a vigorous lamb and a plentiful supply of milk from the meagre offerings of its upland pastures.

Swaledale breeding has been likened to a religion. Flocks of sheep are handed down through generations. Men from other breeds, even men with a sound reputation and a bulging wallet, have found it impossible to break into the Swaledale inner sanctum.

F&M has devastated the Swaledale breed. It didnt just wipe out half a million Swaledale sheep it eradicated, in a matter of weeks, hundreds of years of shepherding skills, of breeding and of heftedness.

Leading Swaledale breeders, whose skills create a benchmark of excellence, now face a daunting task. Not only must they re-establish their flocks numerically but they must try and regain the quality of the sheep they so tragically lost – a breeding quality that father, grandfather and even great-grandfather had spent their lifetimes achieving.

It will be several years before Swaledale breeders can replace all the sheep they have lost – there just arent enough Swaledale ewes left. Instead they must compromise and balance quantity with quality. But even then there remains the almost insurmountable problem of reinstating the hefted instinct into the new flock – something that will take years of breeding to engender into future generations of sheep.

Hefted instinct

Buying Swaledale sheep from different farms as the foundation of a new flock, releasing them onto an open fell of several thousand acres and expecting them to stay there is not an option. It will take 10 years to breed-in the hefted instinct. There is no quick-fix. The short-term problems of hefting remain unresolved.

The priority of every Swaledale breeder is to find new stock. A prolonged delay in locating enough ewes to repopulate the millions of empty acres of fell land in the north – and to ensure they produce a crop of lambs next spring – will inevitably have serious repercussions for the future of these high hill farms of northern England.

The man who should have been standing in the rostrum selling Swaledale tups at Kirkby Stephen Auction Mart is Stuart Bell. From a family of well known Swaledale breeders himself, this popular auctioneer spent many harrowing months travelling from farm to farm, following the scourge of F&M and valuing Swaledale ewes ahead of the arrival of the DEFRA slaughter teams.

Hes watched thousands of the best Swaledale sheep destroyed, each falling in the split second crack of a pistol; hes witnessed distraught hill farmers stand by helpless as years of their skill as hill shepherds were reduced to a pile of steaming carcasses.

"Now we face another trauma," says Mr Bell. "Theres a serious shortage of Swaledale ewes, a situation that a year ago no one could ever have imagined.

"Farmers who cant find enough sheep to restock face another year without income because theyll have to wait until autumn 2002 before they can breed from their ewes again and it will be autumn 2003 before they have anything to sell."

English Nature and other environment organisations have been promoting the reduced stocking of sheep on high fell ground to halt what they say is environmental damage caused by over-grazing.

But there is a fine balance between sheep and the upland environment – something that may be in jeopardy simply because there are now, ironically, too few sheep instead of too many.

So far there has been no official statement from environmental groups but there are already murmurings of concern. The empty, ungrazed fells means scrub and birch can quickly return. Too few sheep are as bad for the upland environment as too many.

Inflated

The situation must be monitored closely but a shortage of Swaledale ewes and inflated prices for those that are on the market, places hill farmers and the environmentalists as unlikely co-victims of the F&M crisis.

The top Swaledale breeders hit by F&M continue to search far and wide for sheep that carry their treasured bloodlines. But those farmers who work under the rather uncomplimentary title of "commercial" producers are also trying desperately to restock their empty fields.

This has been another season of high prices for Swaledale sheep – but for all the wrong reasons.