At 15-years-old, Laura Beaton is already making a name for herself on the show circuit as an up-and-coming Wensleydale sheep breeder.
Alex Robinson reports.
On first speaking to Laura Beaton, it is clear her knowledge and dedication to the breed would rival even the most seasoned sheep producer. Based at Green Hammerton, York, with her parents Stuart and Lily and siblings Chloe, 16, and Henry, 13, Laura runs a 17-strong flock of pure-bred Wensleydale sheep on a 3.3-hectare (eight-acre) plot, four miles from her house.
Laura’s earliest memory of the farm revolve around spending time with her grandparents, who lived in Askham Richard, York, and while her family are heavily involved in livestock and food production, her own farming journey began in November 2012.
Laura says: “As soon as I saw a picture of the Wensleydale on a poster in my parents’ butcher shop, I knew I had to have one. I was in awe of their striking appearance and long, luscious wool. “After a lot of persuading, my dad took me to buy two gimmer hoggs from local breeder Mark Elliott of the Providence flock, Ferrensby. “As a past showman, my dad was able to advise me on the quality of my first lambs and Mark has continued to be a great mentor, providing lots of breeding advice.”
From there Laura’s pedigree Hammerton flock was born. The following October, the two ewes ran with a tup Laura had borrowed from Mark. She says: “One of the foundation females has been the producer of my top performing lambs and continues to work in the flock as a breeding ewe. “I loaned rams for the first few breeding seasons, changing every year.
From experience, I believe it is important to refresh the breeding programme if you are not happy with the progeny. “I know what I like in a sire, but sometimes the coupling with a certain ewe does not work, so I prefer to try different combinations. “For the coming breeding season, I have two potential sires I am happy with. One is a Carperby-bred ram which I bought as a lamb last year from Skipton market for 120gns.
“Bred by Nick Oliver, he will run alongside a home-bred ram I am also hoping to compete at shows, and eventually, sell on to another flock to expand my bloodline base.” The lambing period takes place throughout March, and by the end of summer, Laura will have decided which lambs are to stay in the breeding programme and which are to make the short trip to her parent’s butcher shop to be sold for meat.
Laura adheres to a strict breeding and culling policy, which she claims enables her to keep her stock of a high quality. She says: “I know what I want in a sheep, and so the ones which do not make the grade are utilised in other ways. “If a sheep is not growing on well and displaying strength, I will let it go and replace with another.
“This season, one of the ewes has been put to a Charollais tup to see if adding a different type will improve retail quality of youngstock. “My parents’ farming influence has definitely helped me understand the commercial side of livestock production and attending shows has given me an insight into what judges specifically look for in a pedigree Wensleydale.”
Management is very much a family effort, says Laura, who juggles shearing, lambing, feeding and showing preparation around her school work, as well as weekly dance lessons and Young Farmers commitments at her local Boroughbridge club.
She says: “Without my parents, I could not show. If there is a problem while I am at school, my dad has to intervene, so I am very grateful for their support.” The flock is on all-year-round turnout and is fed a basic mixture of barley, sugar beet pellets and coarse ration. Showing stock get slightly more of the latter ingredient in the lead up to competitions.
Laura says: “After moving to a site with a building, last year was the first time we have lambed inside. This has just made everything a bit easier. “I am also in the process of training up a one-year-old sheepdog, which was given to me by my granddad.”
The catalyst for Laura’s love of showing was sparked when she began attending local shows with her godparents, pedigree Aberdeen-Angus and Beef Shorthorn breeders Richard and Carol Rettie, who farm at Clackmannanshire, Scotland. Laura says: “I always loved helping them out, so as soon as I was ready, I entered my two hoggs for Tockwith Show, where they took first and second prizes in the native breed class.”
Since then, Laura’s home-bred stock has dominated the local circuit, notching up wins at North Yorkshire, Ryedale and Ripley. In 2015, her gimmer lamb won its breed class at the Great Yorkshire Show and she was awarded the society award for most outstanding achievement by a young person. She says: “This was a massive thing for me, as was winning the champion fleece in show at Masham Sheep Fair.
“When I first started out, there were things I had to learn, such as how to take care of the fleece. “A Wensleydale is largely judged on how well the wool parts on touch, so it is important not to overly prepare the fleece. “Instead of washing the sheep with a hose, I now clean them by hand to gently remove dirt, so the wool does not lose its curl.” Despite being less than half the age of most of her fellow competitors, it is the community spirit of the breed society Laura credits for giving her the motivation to compete.
She says: “I remember being nervous at my first competition and I did not know how to tip sheep for the judge. “I was shown by a fellow competitor and now I feel I can present my stock to the judge. “Wensleydale members have been extremely helpful and have given me lots of advice along the way.
“Last year, I got the opportunity to shadow judge at the Great Yorkshire Show with esteemed breeder Roger Field, Ferrensby, which was an amazing experience. “It feels great to contribute to a rare breed’s survival status and I would encourage any young person with an initial interest to throw themselves in and get involved.”
Looking to the future, Laura is adamant a career in agriculture is on the agenda. She says: “I intend to keep expanding my flock and perhaps develop the commercial side of my programme. “At the moment, Wensleydale gimmer lambs are my forte, but I hope to grow my current crop on better this summer and clinch some of the older sheep classes.”
It is easy to see where Laura gets her passion for livestock. Her parents Stuart and Lily come from the best of farming stock and now work full-time at the family’s selfmade farm shop and Q Guild-ranked butchery, Ainsty, Green Hammerton.
While Lily was raised on a commercial suckler and arable farm, Stuart was brought up on the show scene, competing pedigree Charolais cattle and Swaledale sheep, before heading off to farm himself. In 1999, the pair teamed up with five other local farmers and founded a co-operative, selling their meat through farmer’s markets.
This gave rise to Ainsty Farms Direct. Stuart says: “The first farm shop was opened the following year, at a time when there was a good demand for locally produced meats.”
As members of the co-op gradually retired, we decided to move premises in 2005 to a new purpose-built venue, which included a cafe setup. The pair firmly believe the secret to their lasting success is providing customers with local and traditional produce.
Stuart says: “All the beef, pork and lamb in the shop has been sourced within four miles, something which we consider a great achievement. “We believe in supporting family farms and providing buyers with a farm-to-fork experience.” More recently, the business has expanded its customer base and now provides outside catering.
Lily says: “Diversifying is essential if you want your business to survive the turbulence and uncertainly of the industry. Ainsty was one of the first farm shops to be set up in the York area and remains as one of the final few. “We are constantly looking for ways to add value and keep our business relevant. “As the shop grew, our intention was to cease stock farming and focus on the business.
But when it is in your blood, it is never that easy. “We encourage Laura and the other children to get involved in the sector. Chloe is a keen butcher and Henry also wants to pursue farming.”