STEEP TASK IN MOUNTAINS…
Top honours at Earls Court have become the preserve of
breeds whose fleeces are dressed to accentuate their
conformation qualities. But the naturally shown mountain
breeds represent the highest standards of hill-bred lambs.
Jeremy Hunt reports
DONT underestimate the skill that goes into showing horned mountain sheep at Smithfield. The dressed breeds, the result of weeks of work with razor sharp shears, will always be the stars of the show, but selection and feeding of breeds like the Swaledale, Rough Fell and Herdwick is a challenge still relished by a dedicated band of hill flockmasters.
Perched above the town of Sedbergh in Cumbria, with Brant Fell rising to 600m (2020ft) behind the steading, Geoff Sedgwicks Lockbank Farm has long been associated with producing mountain sheep for Smithfield.
As well as a 40-cow dairy herd supplying the family milk retailing business, the farm carries around 270 Rough Fell ewes and 30 Swaledales plus 50 dairy followers and beef stores. The Sedgwicks have been leading breeders of Rough Fell sheep for generations and it was this breed that gave them their first insight into showing mountain lambs under the bright lights of Earls Court.
While the North and South Country Cheviots have always been a dominant force in the mountain section, it was with a pair of Rough Fell lambs with a combined weight of 110kg that Mr Sedgwick began to prove what other hill breeds were capable of.
Now he concentrates on Swaledales for Smithfield and has two pairs of wether lambs entered for next weeks show. But selecting two pairs of sheep that will eventually match in style and weight means the search for potential stars must begin in late summer.
"You need at least 10 lambs to give you enough selection to find two that match so this year I have a batch of around 20 lambs from which I can draw my show sheep," says Mr Sedgwick.
Home-bred lambs will provide some of the Smithfield starter group but by August Mr Sedgwick will have made arrangements to look over flocks where he has previously spotted lambs with Smithfield potential.
"In August lambs can look very level but as they grow they can change dramatically. Marked changes in character and stature can make stuffy lambs stretch out while stylish lambs can thicken and shorten. Its a tricky business."
Apart from visual qualities – and no Smithfield showman would deny that even the best carcass sheep still have to catch the judges eye – Mr Sedgwick is constantly aware of the tendency for some hill lambs to become sharp on the shoulder as they develop.
"Its a trait to be avoided although quite often the most stylish sheep are the ones that start out with an accentuated sharpness on the shoulder."
By early autumn the Smithfield contenders at Lockbank Farm will be housed in a straw yard. Alongside home-bred sheep there are lambs from David Watson at Middleton Hall, near Sedbergh, as well as from brother-in-law Graham Metcalfe, who farms at nearby Cautley.
So what gives a Swaledale lamb that Smithfield potential? "I am looking for a square lamb with good legs and a tight coat. There must be width between the hind legs and good length between the foot and the hock.
"Fatstock judges make decisions from behind a lamb; you must have lambs that stand four-square and have good width."
Mr Sedgwick, who benefits from the financial help given by the breed society to all Smithfield Swaledale exhibitors, will be aiming for lambs weighing 50-52kg and that means lambs must handle well on their initial assessment in early autumn. Over the eight to 12 weeks running up to Smithfield they will be expected to gain about 10kg.
"Experience tells you just how to select lambs with the potential to gain sufficient condition for Smithfield without the risk of becoming over-fat. Housing gives you total control and the weight is more likely to stay on, compared with lambs fed outside, even after the journey to Earls Court. The trip south can sometimes take kilos off lambs."
Mr Sedgwick has experimented with various feed combinations for his Smithfield lambs. Like most he is reluctant to divulge specific details but the ration is mixed to his specifications and initially fed ad-lib with hay.
"I keep a close eye on the lambs and experience tells me when they have gone far enough; thats when we switch to feeding twice a day to give more control over their condition. Its important not to over-handle lambs. Initially I assess them by eye and may only touch them once a fortnight."
Judicial trimming to tidy up the shaggy wool hanging over the hocks and possibly two passes through the dip will complete the preparation.
"I am confident that the type of lambs we are producing for Smithfield, even though they may be at heavier weights than hill lambs are traditionally taken to, will still hang up as excellent carcass sheep.
"In August lambs can look very level, but as they grow they can change dramatically. Stuffy lambs can stretch out while stylish lambs can thicken and shorten. Its a tricky business," says Geoff Sedgwick.