SITUATED at the foot of Pendle Hill at Barley, Lancashire, Meadow Bank is home to flocks of Bluefaced Leicesters and Swaledales, the result of a combined 70 years of breeding by the Hargreaves family. Hannah Noble reports.
Run by brothers, Richard and John Hargreaves and Richard’s son, Bob, Meadow Bank covers 202 hectares (500 acres) of owned land and 40ha (100 acres) of rented land, as well as grazing rights to 250ha (617 acres) on Pendle Hill, which rises to 558 metres (1,832 feet) above sea level.
Currently the flock comprises 1,150 ewes, including 450 pure Swaledales, 50 pedigree Bluefaced Leicesters, 50 mules and 600 Swaledales which make up the crossing flock and are put to home-bred Bluefaced Leicester tups to produce North of England Mule lambs.
The flock took a hit during the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak, which saw the family lose most of the BFL flock and some of the Swaledales.
The Hargreaves also had a herd of 90 suckler cows. But in 2003 they made the decision to sell them and concentrate on the sheep.
Richard says: “This is when we started investing heavily in Swaledales and Bluefaced Leicesters, and now with pedigree sales they are bringing in equivalent income to the suckler cows.”
The family have been breeding Bluefaced Leicesters for over 40 years, previously running a commercial flock of cross-bred ewes.
BFL tups are mostly bought through Hawes auction mart, sourcing from a carefully selected group of top breeders.
Purchases from Gordon Rawsthorne’s Lancaster-based Lunesdale flock have proved particularly successful for the family, specifically Lunesdale S1.
“People are looking for these bloodlines now, the tup sired lambs which were champions at Hawes and Bentham in the same year," Bob says.
Selling Bluefaced Leicester tups is an important income stream for the family. Earlier in the year they sold 15 tup lambs at Hawes which averaged £1,800, topping at £8,000.
In order to make the most from the genetics available, all the Bluefaced Leicesters are artificially inseminated with fresh or frozen semen collected from stock tups. Each year about four ewes are also flushed and embryos are implanted into Mules.
This allows greater number of lambs to be produced from the ewes identified for their superior traits, as well as benefiting from the Mules’ milkiness and excellent mothering ability.
“This year our technician broke his record for Bluefaced Leicester sheep and collected 37 eggs from one sheep, which just happened to be one of our best,” says Bob.
All eggs were put into recipient Mules in pairs, which amounted to 55 eggs in 27 sheep with one set of triplets. Following scanning, it was confirmed that of the 27 recipient sheep, two were scanned empty and three carrying singles.
Because of the high value of the Bluefaced Leicester tup lambs, Bob says: “This year for the first time we reared all the tup lambs as singles and this worked much better.”
Any twins were taken off and mothered onto other sheep
“The key is being ready with a spare lamb and making sure you collect all the fluids in a bucket," Bob adds.
"We often have 100 per cent success rate, sometimes having to use a head yoke for a day or so but usually it goes well.”
Thirty years ago Richard and John created the Meadow Bank flock of Swaledale sheep.
“Originally when we started the flock, I went out and bought a few good pens of draft ewes from some of the top breeders, that is a great way to get into pedigrees,” says Richard.
Since then, they have become involved in a tup-share arrangement with The Harker family, Grayrigg Hall and Overthwaite Farm. This allows them to pool a larger budget giving them the opportunity to buy the very best tups available on the market and therefore making greater genetic progress within the flock.
“We usually purchase around three tups per year between us, sourcing mainly from sales at Kirkby Stephen and Hawes livestock markets," Richard says.
“In 2017 we bought the champion from Kirkby Stephen for £24,000 from Kevin Sowerby, Milburn, which was a new breed record price for a tup lamb.”
Previous to this, as a result of their syndicate, they have purchased tups for as much as £47,000 from Paul Hallam, Arnfield. This investment enabled them to breed their highest priced tup at £35,000, which was reserve champion and sold at Kirkby Stephen as a shearling to a five-way syndicate.
“We also won the championship at Kirkby Stephen in 2015, with a shearling tup we bred which sold to Mark and Paul Ewbank, Pateley Bridge, and went on to breed the champion at this year’s sale,” says Bob.
Last year the family sold 10 Swaledale tups at Kirkby Stephen, averaging £2,800 per head.
Tups bred within the Barley flock of Bluefaced Leicesters are used across 600 Swaledale ewes, producing North of England Mule lambs. About 500 highly sought-after females are sold at Hawes and Bentham in the autumn and tup lambs are finished on farm to sell deadweight along with the pedigree Swaledale tup lambs.
“Everything is finished on farm, male lambs are left entire. In our opinion they have the potential to grow more quickly,” says Richard.
“We AI about 200 crossing Swaledales with semen collected from Bluefaced Leicester tup lambs.
"This allows us to find out if they are fertile, as well as showing how they breed, so by the time they are ready to sell as shearlings, they are already proven."
One hundred ewes are AI’d to 10 of the best tup lambs the remaining 100 are AI’d to G35 Midlock, another highly influential Bluefaced Leicester stock tup for the Hargreaves’ flock, bred by the Wight family, Scotland.
All ewes are treated for fluke and worms before tupping time and given a mineral bolus containing copper, iodine, selenium and cobalt.
Richard says attention to detail is key in breeding top class pedigree stock: “We select which sheep goes to which tup by picking out their poorest traits, you are always trying to correct the faults.
“We spend a long time drawing up groups, we could spend three days matching the Swaledale ewes with the most suitable tup. It’s the part which makes it enjoyable.”
Tups are run individually with some of the Bluefaced Leicester tups being put with groups as big as 100 Swaledale ewes. They remain with the sheep for two cycles, but Bob says most are usually covered by the end of the first cycle.
“With the share tups, we work on 120 ewes between us, swapping the tups after each cycle," he says.
“Sheep usually scan at about 180 per cent across the whole flock, the Leicesters scan heavy, the pure Swales can be lower."
All sheep are managed in groups depending on the number of lambs they are scanned to be carrying and fed accordingly.
“Rather than waiting until three weeks before lambing and hitting them hard with feed, we start with half a pound of feed six to eight weeks before lambing and gradually build up to one pound, with triplets getting a little bit more,” says Richard.
“We lamb everything inside, but we do not house until the week before lambing if we can help it. Sometimes if the weather is good in April we are able to lamb the pure Swaledales outside.”
Bob adds: “We give every sheep the opportunity to lamb naturally, we don’t often help unless the lamb has a leg back or it is backwards."
When sheep lamb they are moved into a single mothering pen. Navels are sprayed with iodine twice, once just after birth and once a couple of hours later.
Two years ago updates were made on the shed, the old individual pens were made nearly 40 years ago and started to show their age.
Sheep are watered each end of the day: “We don’t leave buckets in with them through the day and night, to avoid wet pens and as a safety precaution for newborn lambs,” says Bob.
"Pet lambs are reared on a milk machine, much like an automatic calf rearing system. We get them started on the bottle for a day then teach them to drink from the milk machine.
"We always take the biggest male lamb off a sheep, if you are putting them on a machine, the bigger lamb is more likely to thrive on milk replacer than a smaller one which has more growing to do”
In 2009, they invested in an EID system and stick reader, which has helped with making sure each animal has the correct pedigree information, and movements, deaths and retagging can be tracked accurately.
Each ewe put to each tup is recorded before lambing time, every lamb is tagged within a few days of being born and its tag number is linked to its sire and dam.
“At lambing time, if there are any issues with the ewes, such as problems with milk or udders, it can be added to the comments, and when we read all the tags post-weaning, it flags up the problems and allows us to cull for undesirable traits,” Richard says.
“We also cull any badly lame ewes, and we cull very heavily on blown teats as this was a problem for us, we can really see the value in the investment."
“At the moment we have a good stock of sheep and good bloodlines, so we are making money and as we always aim to buy the upper end of the market, we are selling something good.”