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Backbone of Britain: 'I love spending time with my dad and the sheep' - Joe Thornley, 12

With a pedigree vision that exceeds his 12 years, young breeder Joe Thornley proves why he is one to watch as a showman and stockman. 


Even in someone so young, there’s no doubting the passion, enthusiasm and knowledge 12-year old Joe Thornley has for breeding Blue Texel sheep.


Not only has he already sold a ram to set a new breed record of 18,000gns, but he’s clear in his vision for his flock as he concentrates on fixing strong female families to suit both the pedigree and commercial market.


Joe’s passion for sheep has been cultivated with knowledge gained from his father, David, who owns the Dooley flock of pedigree Beltex, with the family’s farming enterprise being based at Swadlincote, Derbyshire.


“Both Joe and his 10-year old sister, Kate, have a huge passion for all things farming and from an early age have been eager to get involved with lambing sheep, feeding lambs and also doing the main feeding and watering of the ewes,” says David. And along with mum, Caroline, the whole family are involved throughout the year.


“I’ve always loved working with the sheep, I’ve enjoyed showing and I love the sales,” explains Joe, who attends Granville Academy.


“Dad has taught me the basics of good sheep breeding, confirmation and what to look for when buying sheep, and then I’ve just worked that into my own preferences within the Blue Texels.”


Joe’s flock started in 2013 with the purchase of two shearling ewes and a ewe lamb from Dylan Jones’s Beili flock in Carlisle. And while Joe is particularly selective in what makes a good sheep, he does admit to falling for one particular female.


“I went in the pen and this one ewe lamb came up to me and sniffed my hand, so I thought, I’m having you,” he says.


Some 500gns later, Sniffs, as she is commonly known in the flock, was bred to a borrowed ram from Andrew Froggatt’s Sams flock and went on to produce the 18,000gns record priced Joe’s Alvin, sold at Carlisle to Paul and Christine Tippetts in 2016 for their Hackney flock.


So, a little bit of luck combined with good instincts soon set Joe on his path to sheep breeding success.


“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be selling Alvin for that sort of money and I never really took it in until afterwards,” he says.


“Not only has it allowed me the opportunity to grow the flock with added purchases, it’s been a great honour to see progeny from Alvin do so well for the Hackney flock with various championship wins over the last couple of years and his first lambs selling for 2,300gns.


“I’ve also been blessed by gaining lots of advice from other breeders who are friends of the family. Along with my dad, they have helped guide me along the way. It’s a great industry to grow up in as you’re always learning.”

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Further females have been added to the flock in the form of Millside, Rattrays and Beili lines again, as well as a shearling ram from the Sams flock.


“I’ve looked for females with feminine characteristics and style, as well as correct hind legs,” adds Joe.


“While it’s tricky to breed for pure breed characteristics because the breed originates from a recessive gene, I havestarted off with good character.”


Joe adds they complement the management of the Beltex flock at home as well, which was another reason for him choosing them.


“We’d had good interest in tup sales from both pedigree and commercial men, I’ve even managed to sell one or two to my dad’s Beltex customers,” he adds proudly.


“I just love being on the farm because it means spending time with my dad and the sheep.”


In just a few years Joe has enjoyed success not only in the sale ring, but at shows as well, with a number of wins at both local and national level.


“We do well at our local Ashby Show and I’ve had male champion last year at the Great Yorkshire Show with a ram lamb I have since retained for use on Lleyn females,” he adds.


“Showing is a good shop window to help promote the breed and meet new customers, but I don’t place a lot of emphasis on it.


“My show team is natural. Often lambs have been pulled in from the field off grass alone before the show and my older males and females are shown with little fleece on them,” Joe says.


And while Joe loves to watch the larger classes at shows, he says too often a show sheep doesn’t breed, so it’s good to see what lines are performing as strong, consistent breeders and which ones are just good show sheep.


In order to speed up genetic progress in the flock, Joe has embarked on embryo transfer work and has used Lleyn females as recipients.


“Those that didn’t hold or weren’t needed have run with the Blue Texel lamb and have produced some fantastic crossbred lambs,” he says.


“The cross is one which works well, producing lambs with length and tops. I’m looking forward to seeing how they sell this autumn.”


With regards the pedigree flock, Joe is looking forward to working with the female genetics he has. “I’d like to push to 20 ewes. It’s a manageable number,” he adds.


“I might look at buying the odd female, but only if something special comes along.”


Joe has since purchased a new ram lamb privately from Giles Hardman’s Farm Mill flock.


“He’s by a Solwayview ram and out of a sister to the flock’s successful show ewe,” he says. “He’s very correct, with great style and depth of loin. I’m excited about what the future holds for him.”


And alongside his sheep flock, Joe knows he also has to work hard at school.


With a passion for science and woodwork, it’s clear Joe is a talented and practical young man, and will no doubt map his future out for pedigree sheep breeding alongside a good education.


Kate, meanwhile, with her love of all animals, would like to pursue a career in veterinary nursing.


“I’m not all that sure what I want to do in the future, but it will involve farming,” Joe says.

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