Draft ewe buying and selling policies lift upland flocks

Making the most from draft ewes this autumn – whether buying or selling – can be a massive benefit to farm businesses. Jeremy Hunt speaks to two contrasting farmers who are farming these ewes.

Cumbria sheep producers Andrew and Mark Brown buy-in about 200 draft Swaledale ewes every autumn – focusing on quality in the hope to get a good return on investment.

Their annual purchase of draft ewes are bought from sales at Kirkby Stephen, Middleton-in Teesdale and Bentham auction marts. Last year they paid up to £140 a head and Andrew Brown believes prices this year will be in line with 2014.

See also: Keep up to date with the latest livestock sales news from across the country

Their main buying criteria is two/three crop ewes that are in their prime as breeding sheep and will easily rear twin lambs.

They look for tall ewes which are big and strong and with plenty of stretch and not much wool. They believe it’s these ewes that produce the smartest and best Mule lambs.

This year their batch of 500 gimmer lambs averaged £120, with the higher prices going along way towards covering the cost of the draft ewes in their first season in the flock, says Mr Brown.

Ewes are then sold as cast after three or four crops. This year’s cast ewes made up to £60 a head and averaged £45.

The brothers produce North of England Mules from their flock of about 750 Swaledale ewes at Asby Hall, Appleby.

Last year they achieved a lambing percentage of nearly 200%. “That’s pretty good for Swaledale ewes and it’s why we like to buy the sort of sheep that have the ability to do that. We had very few single lambs born this spring,” says Mr Brown.


On arrival at Asby Hall all draft ewes are given a fluke and worm dose and are then sorted in preparation for tupping.

Asby Hall’s draft ewe buying policy

  • Buys quality Swaledale draft ewes at two/three crops
  • Last year paid av of £140 a head
  • Buy only quality so can get strong lambs, which are then sold.
  • This year lambs averaged £120 a head
  • Ewes sold as cast after four crops and this year averaged £45

The Browns have been successfully using AI. About half the ewes are AI’d with fresh semen from tups bred in their own Bluefaced Leicester flock. Conception rate is about 95%.

“The draft ewes take to the AI programme very well; they are in good order when they arrive because they’ve been looked after to get them ready for the sales.

“By using AI it means we have a tighter lambing-time and can use some of the best tups across the flock.

“And these good, big draft ewes can comfortably rear two lambs for us in their first year so hopefully they’re wasting no time in helping to pay back what they cost,” he says.

The Browns take great pride in producing top-quality North of England Mule gimmer lambs – and the quality and style of the draft ewes they buy-in each autumn plays a vital part in that.

“But Swaledale ewes bred pure in hill flocks are becoming more productive and are rearing more lambs. A Swaledale ewe used to suckle a single lamb, but now a lot more produce twins.

“It means these ewes have often done a lot more work by the time they come on to the market as drafts.”

Draft ewe seller Ray Calvert, Keld, Swaledale

On the other side of the fence is Swaledale breeder Ray Calvert, Keld, Swaledale, whos says income from draft ewes is a big part of his business.

He aims to make his draft ewes some of the most sought after in the autumn sales.

The entire flock, which is run on common fell grazing up to 700m, is bred pure. But as upland stocking densities are reduced to meet environmental grazing prescriptions, Mr Calvert knows the availability of good quality draft ewes will continue to get tighter.

Ray Calvert’s draft ewe selling policy

  • Draft ewes sold after three crops and go on to until seven to eight shears
  • Focus on breeding ewes with good teeth
  • Grazed on good meadow ground prior to sale

“Running a pure hill flock means we need to keep the highest standard Swaledale ewes that we can – not only to help us breed good tups but also to ensure we have good-quality draft ewes to sell.

“The Swaledale ewe has a massive influence on the UK sheep industry as the mother of the North of England Mule.

“And it’s the quality of the draft ewes that not only has a big impact on the Mule lambs they produce but ultimately on the prime lambs that they go on to breed,” he says.

“And it’s also important for me to know how our draft ewes have done for their new owners and to see their Mule gimmer lambs that come back on to the market.”

About 400 draft ewes from the flock are sold at Kirkby Stephen and Hawes. Last year the flock topped the Hawes sale at £370 for a pen of 10.

“I expect our draft ewes to go on to become at least seven or eight shear sheep following the three crops of pure-bred lambs they produce for us.”

But critical to the productive life-span of these ewes is their teeth.

“They’ll comfortably produce another three lamb crops at least and I can say that confidently because we are very strict about the mouths in our sheep.

“Teeth are so important and it’s something I pay a lot of attention to when buying stock tups. If a ewe can keep her teeth as she matures it plays a big part in extending her productive life.”

“That’s why we try to produce the highest quality we can.”

The flock comprises 10 separate hefts of Swaledale ewes, which are brought down from fell grazings in early September when the lambs are weaned.

“We’ve a good idea how many ewes will be sold from each heft as drafts; they are replaced in each heft by shearlings. Most of the draft ewes will leave the farm after three crops.

“In recent years we’ve had good numbers of pure gimmer lambs born so we’ve been able to sell a few more younger drafts which mean buyers are able to get an extra year of production out of them.”

Draft ewes to be sold are carefully checked at weaning time and grazed on in-by pasture before being moved to good meadow ground two weeks before being sold.