Some producers restocking
have used the opportunity
to have a fresh start.
Jeremy Hunt visited one
Lake District producer
who is switching from
gimmer lamb to prime
NORTH Country Cheviot ewes have replaced Swaledales on the Hall familys two Cumbria farms in the wake of the foot-and-mouth disaster.
Its a move that will see the farms output swing 100% towards prime lamb production.
The change of heart from running a Swaledale flock aimed primarily at producing North of England Mules has been a gradual process. The F&M crisis swung the decision in favour of a change of breed. But North Country Cheviots had already started to impress before the crisis on the Halls farm, Inglewood Edge, Dalston, near Carlisle.
F&M wiped out the familys suckler herd and the previous years yearling calf crop – a total of 947 cattle – and more than 2000 sheep. The only stock saved were 127 Texel-cross hoggs that were being away wintered near Ross-on-Wye.
John Hall says the decision to change the farms sheep policy was taken in a rather arbitrary fashion. "It worked its way through in our thinking about how we were going to get sheep back on the farm and lamb ewes in spring 2002.
"The long tail-end of the outbreak made restocking decisions difficult, but eventually we decided to go to Dingwall to buy 2000 North Country Cheviot draft ewes," says Mr Hall.
Hed been buying batches of these ewes from the big Dingwall and Lairg sales in the North of Scotland for about five years and had been impressed by their performance.
"Every year I found myself buying more until the year before F&M, when all ewes at Inglewood Edge were North Country Cheviots instead of Swaledales."
The turnaround had also influenced the strategy underway at Eyecott, Berrier – the familys nearby hill farm which had traditionally supplied draft Swaledale ewes to Inglewood Edge to be used to produce North of England Mules.
The ousting of the Swaledales by the North Country Cheviot had allowed draft Swaledale ewes from Eyecott to be sold directly off the hill as shearlings and three-shears.
"That brought a better revenue at Eyecott and left the way open for North Country Cheviots to take over at Inglewood Edge," says Mr Hall.
The 2001 lambing would have been the first time the entire Inglewood Edge flock comprised North Country Cheviots but then F&M took its toll. Home-bred three quarter-Beltex tups had been used on the Cheviots in autumn 2000 but the Halls had to wait until this spring to see an entire crop of white-faced lambs.
For some flockmasters, the decision to rely on the prime market instead of North of England Mule gimmers as the main source of income could have prompted a switch to using the Mule as the basis for a prime lamb enterprise.
"But I have always been wary of keeping Mules at Inglewood Edge. Its a summer farm and if you try to keep up your stocking rate in winter you can get into serious trouble.
"The North of England Mule needs average or better than average conditions to do its job properly. Inglewood Edge can produce mighty sheep in summer, but winter management here is not easy, particularly as sheep get older," says Mr Hall.
He believes the North Country Cheviot is well suited to the farm which lies in hill country on the eastern edge of the Lake District mid-way between Penrith and Carlisle.
Bringing North Country Cheviot ewes south from northern Scotland suits them well, says Mr Hall.
"By autumn these ewes are on the up. Its been a while since lambs were taken off them and theyve had a rest and some better keep in the run up to the sale.
"They come south on a rising plane of nutrition and yet they arent too heavy. They are in just the right condition for tupping."
The Halls say these five and six-year-old ewes are easily managed. "Although some will produce two crops, we expect most to complete just one lambing before being sold as cast ewes.
"An individual cast ewe will probably make money over its purchase price, but you have to factor in losses," says Mr Hall.
In autumn 2000, Dingwall prices ranged from £20/head to £22/head for high quality ewes; last year ewes were costing around £28.
The flock is out-wintered and lambed outside starting in early April. For hardiness Mr Hall puts them on a par with Swaledales and Scottish Blackface. Lambing percentage is 150%.
"The change from Swaledales to Cheviots was partly motivated by the need to produce something better for the prime lamb ring than a North of England Mule wether.
"I have nothing against Swaledales or North of England Mules. Some years ago we, like all other North of England Mule gimmer lamb breeders, had a good year and prices were high.
"But over the following three years the price dropped and we suddenly found wethers making £1/head more than gimmers. I cant see why I should sit on a stool dressing Mule gimmers and then get less for them than the wethers."
The first Beltex-sired prime lambs from the Cheviots will be drawn as singles from July with the bulk of late summer lambs reaching 38-42kg; weights will be slightly heavier as trough-fed lambs are sold into the autumn. *
Cheviot ewes will form the basis of John Halls flock as he moves to prime lamb production.
• Restocking decision.
• Disappointing Mule gimmer prices.
• Beltex cross Cheviot lambs.