The prolonged impact of
foot-and-mouth is making
it difficult for hill producers
to plan a restocking
programme to ensure they
have ewes to lamb next
spring. Jeremy Hunt reports
ALMOST 4000 hill sheep that grazed on Birker Moor on the southern fringe of the Lake District were slaughtered as contiguous culls during the first week of April.
But five months later, the three producers of Birker Moor are no nearer knowing when they will be able to restock.
John Harrison of Crosby- thwaite, Ulpha, near Broughton-in-Furness was one of those producers. He lost 1100 ewes, predominantly Herdwick, on the brink of lambing. Now his in-bye land and the vast expanse of fell that runs to 300m (1000ft) above sea level in this remote corner of Cumbria are empty. His buildings are disinfected and spotless.
"Its so clean here we could start serving afternoon teas in here," he jests.
But theres not a lot to laugh about, even though Mr Harrison knows hes more fortunate than most. Two bunches of his replacement female sheep – ewe lambs and shearlings – were being away wintered when the home flock was slaughtered in April.
He hasnt been able to tend these sheep in recent months, but arrangements to care for them in his absence have ensured that he at least has a nucleus flock to bring home at some time in the future. Compared with many of his neighbours, whose entire fell stock and replacements have been lost, he knows hes been lucky.
Mr Harrison is vice-chairman of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association. F&M has dealt a devastating blow to the breed, but even for those determined to restock, it seems unlikely there will be sheep grazing this or any other Cumbrian fells for many months.
The implications of not being able to source stock are only part of the problem. Even when ewes are located and purchased through private deals, no one knows when they can be brought home.
On most Lake District hill farms, Herdwick tups are traditionally turned out in mid/late November, but many flockmasters fear the green light to restock will come too late for ewes to be tupped in their new homes. That begs the question of whether those who have Herdwick ewes to sell will be prepared to keep them, tup them and hold them until the new owners can safely take delivery.
That arrangement will only work if those with ewes to sell have enough keep to support additional numbers of sheep into the winter. And even then, a weekly keep price that could be up to 70p/ewe will hit buyers hard when their compensation payments have already been forced to support hill farming families for far longer than was ever envisaged.
But none of these issues touch on what is probably the most important concern of hill farmers who need to replace sheep stocks – the matter of re-establishing a hefted flock.
One option being considered by some F&M victims is trying to locate Herdwick draft ewes they sold last autumn.
These ewes could provide valuable nucleus stocks. Even though they may have spent a year on lower land, possibly hundreds of miles from home, they could safely be brought back to their birth fell where they would naturally return to their own heft.
Several Lake District producers have already received phone calls from last autumns buyers of their draft Herdwick ewes who are willing to see these sheep return home to help the restocking programme.
The DEFRA rules covering restocking mean hill farms whose disinfection was completed in mid-July will not be permitted to bring sheep back on to the holding for four months. This makes December the earliest restocking date, but thats in the middle of tupping time.
Mr Harrison thinks many Herdwick flock owners would prefer to delay restocking until spring 2002 and opt to start with ewes and lambs, hoping it will be easier to heft lambs to their new fell.
But remaining Herdwick flock owners who have sufficient lower land and older ewes to sell would traditionally tup them with a Texel or Suffolk, to produce a higher value lamb crop.
These traditional practices for some Herdwick ewes will need to be deferred to ensure sufficient ewes with purebred lambs at foot can be made available.
RESTOCKING IN CUMBRIA
• Uncertainty over timing.
• Draft ewes may return.
• Hefting difficulties.