As well as moving from a tenanted upland farm to buying their own lower-lying holding, Eddie and Rona Eastham also changed their system, switching from breeding sheep to finishing store lambs and rearing ewe lambs.
After building a pure Cheviot flock on his former Lake District hill farm above Haweswater, it was a logical progression to opt to stay with the Cheviot breed when Eddie Eastham and his wife, Rona, moved to a smaller, low-lying farm near the Solway Coast, north Cumbria.
Mr Eastham, who was once a contract shepherd, held the tenancy of Naddle Farm, Haweswater, for 21 years, but four years ago he bought Longburgh Fauld, Longburgh, Burgh-by-Sands, Carlisle.
Longburgh Fauld is a complete contrast to Naddle. It is 16 hectares (40 acres) plus a further 12ha (30 acres) of rented land, a little above sea level. About half the home farm is marshland and the rest is high quality grazing. Longburgh Fauld was originally part of a dairy farm which was split up and sold.
As with many other farms in Cumbria, the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak was a trigger for changes in their farming business. Mr Eastham lost part of his sheep flock in the outbreak, deciding to establish a Cheviot flock on one of the farm’s hefts while restocking.
He went on to become a breed enthusiast and, until recently, a member of the council for the Cheviot Sheep Society.
Mr Eastham says: “Our land suits the Cheviot breed. However, with our limited acreage we simply could not run both a breeding flock and a store lamb enterprise. After some thought we felt the store lambs were the better and most practical option.
“We buy in about 1,200 store lambs, mostly Cheviots, plus about 200 Cheviot ewe lambs each autumn. They all come from farms in the Scottish Borders and are bought at Longtown which is a strong market for Cheviots.
“We tend to buy from many of the same farms each year and take mostly North Country Hill plus some South Country Cheviots, depending on availability. Buying-in from a number of sources does have potential health risks, but we pick our sheep carefully and have a robust health plan in place when they arrive at our farm.”
Most of the flock are away wintered from November to late March, returning to good grass.
Mr Eastham says: “The Cheviot lamb suits this sort of system as it is late maturing. There is a tendency for some retailers to disregard UK lamb as being out of season after Christmas.
“We believe Cheviot lamb is in season in early spring. Buyers like lambs finished this way as they find it helps the killing out percentage. We start selling from about February and aim to sell about 100 each week, with most away by mid-April.
“The Cheviot lamb suits this sort of system. A lot of big retailers like lamb out of season and we are careful to call our lambs ‘lamb’ and not ‘hogget’ which can sometimes put retailers off, seeing it as older sheep.”
Lambs are finished at 40-48kg liveweight and Mr Eastham says this makes them suitable for a wide range of markets.
“They are sold through Longtown market which has a strong demand for prime Cheviot lambs. I believe strongly in supporting our auction marts and we are in danger of losing them if finished stock are mostly sold deadweight.
“The auction gives us competition on price paid which you do not get to the same extent with deadweight. Lamb has the advantage over beef as it has a number of outlets, including the Muslim and export markets.
“The prime lamb market has always been unpredictable. This year there was an increase just before early Easter, when supplies were a little short, but it then dropped back after Easter.
“Purchase and sale prices of store lambs and breeding sheep can be variable and unpredictable. As with any business, it is the margin which counts. This margin can easily be eroded if a careful eye is not kept on costs.”
Cheviot ewe lambs are all North Country Hill, grazing the marsh area of the farm and sold as yearlings in autumn sales at Longtown and Lockerbie.
While it is wet, and potentially a good habitat for mud snails – a vector for liver fluke – so far the farm has been virtually fluke free. However, treatment against fluke is part of the health protocol for the introduction of lambs.
Mr Eastham is a member of the National Sheep Association’s English committee and represents England upland areas on its UK policy and technology committee.
He says: “The retention and enhancement of our valued upland landscape is dependent on sound management. Grazing at appropriate stocking densities with traditional hefted flocks is an essential ingredient.
“Stewardship schemes with the environmental and financial benefits which they bring, have had a positive effect in many areas.
“However, in some areas these schemes have been less desirable, leading to destocking, with the encroachment of unpalatable grass and scrub. This often means the fragmentation of farm units, dispersal of hefted flocks and the disturbance of rural families.
“Policymakers need to understand the wider implications of their actions and the unintended consequences which can occur.
“An exit from Europe could present the industry with big challenges. Its reliance on exports, sensitivities to exchange rates and the possibility of tariffs pose many questions which only time will answer.
“With the UK’s grass-based systems, there is a good story to tell. It is important to keep developing products and ways of presenting lamb to reach the widest range of customers possible.”