Luing cattle and Cheviot sheep provide the back-bone of the farming enterprise at High House Farm in the Lake District, where environmental considerations also play a key part.
Farm manager Alec Smith is farming butterflies. Well not exactly, but management of Luing cattle and Cheviot sheep at High House Farm at Winster, near Windermere, is closely geared to conservation.
This includes the provision and maintenance of the habitats for one of Britain’s rarest butterflies - the high brown fritillary.
But this is not the whole story; while the 560-hectare (1,400-acre) farm is part of the Scowcroft Estate, it is very much a commercial business. It has to work around the interests and hobbies of the estate owners, which include a commercial shoot and stables.
The business has been owned by the Scowcroft family for more than 30 years, and takes in about 160ha (400 acres) of mature woodland and the 160ha (400 acres) Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) land and 45ha (110 acres) of good grassland. The rest is taken up by permanent pasture and allotments.
Stock comprises 60 pedigree Luing breeding cows and followers, plus about 300 North Country Hill Cheviot and 300 Cheviot Mule sheep. Replacement stock is home-bred as far as possible so it can become accustomed to the level of ticks on the farm.
Mr Smith, who was brought up on a neighbouring farm, took over as farm manager 10 years ago.
He says: “At the time the sheep were a mixed bag of breeds and crosses, so I started with a blank canvas.
“When I started, we simply put everything to Texel tups. There were also about 60 Highland suckler cows grazing conservation areas under the ESA scheme. They had been chosen because they could be outwintered and looked well in front of the big house.
“However, the Highland calves did not produce as good store cattle as we wanted and there was also the issue of handling with the big horns and, to some extent, temperament. We did try putting the Shorthorn on some of our Highlands, with limited success.”
Mr Smith says the cattle play an important role in the higher level stewardship scheme, which involves them trampling down the down the bracken, both within the SSSI and on all of the land in general, which enables the high brown fritillary eggs to be laid and hatch on the bracken for the larvae to feed on the dog violets.
“This area now has the highest population of this endangered butterfly anywhere in the country”, says Mr Smith.
He also says a hardy breed of cattle, which could be outwintered on rough ground, produce good calves to sell well as stores, look well and, importantly, have good temperament, making them easy to handle, were needed for the farm.
“Calm temperament was also important as the estate is crossed by many footpaths. However, we also make sure cows with young calves are kept well away from footpaths.”
He says at the time he was considering changing breeds, Luing breeder Wilbert Girvan was writing about his system in a farming publication and Mr Smith thought the breed could well suit the farm.
“I went to the Luing Society sale in Castle Douglas in February 2005 and bought two heifers. Wilbert’s neighbour and fellow Luing breeder, Bob Moffat, was in organic conversion and we were able to buy another 17 heifers from him. They were joined by a bull from Wilbert and the Winster Luing herd was up and running.”
The Luings replaced the Highlands and Mr Smith says they have proved themselves as good, commercial beef suckler animals. He says ease of calving was another important factor as the farm calves and lambs at the same time, mostly in April and May.
Mr Smith says: “Apart from Luing heifers kept as replacements or for sale as breeding stock, all calves are sold as stores at about 18-months-old through Junction 36 at Kendal and Bentham markets, and also privately.
“Calves are housed for their first winter, otherwise all cattle are wintered and fed outside. We have also been using a Simmental bull on our poorer Luings, giving Sim-Luing calves.
“In May, our 12-month-old Sim-Luing calves sold to £910 apiece at Junction 36. Our 18-month-old pure Luing stores made £800 around the same time, when sold privately.”
Mr Smith says one problem sometimes encountered in the area is that buyers do not seem to like ‘hairy cattle. “However we find people who have bought our stores tend to come back for more,” he says.
With the sheep flock, Mr Smith wanted a flock where he could breed all the farm’s own replacements.
“I had worked with, and liked, Cheviots before coming here and knew they produced the right product, whether lambs were sold deadweight or through the live ring,” he says.
“I also feel the Cheviot Mule may not be as good an all-rounder as the North of England Mule. The North of England Mule could give 5-10 per cent more lambs than our Cheviot Mule, but on our system we really want twins and do not want a lot of triplets.
“Overall, we probably get less than 5 per cent lower income from our Cheviot Mules than if we used North of England Mules, but, for us, it is worth doing so for ease of management.”
Younger Cheviots are bred pure, and Bluefaced Leicester tups are used on the older and poorer ewes to give the farm its Cheviot Mules.
Charollais tups are then used on the Cheviot Mule shearlings, and Beltex cross Texel tups are used on the remainder.
“We find the Beltex cross Texel tups give lambs with nice tight skins that sell well,” says Mr Smith.
The Cheviot Mules scan at about 180 per cent lambs over ewes put to the ram and the pure Cheviots, which include a good proportion of shearlings, about 140 per cent. Ewes carrying singles lamb outside and the rest lamb inside.
“For the last couple of years we have brought the indoor lambers inside from about Christmas until they have lambed. The cost of the straw and feed is negligible and it is also the only time some of our ‘green’ land gets a rest,” says Mr Smith.
Most ewe lambs are kept as flock replacements. From the rest, about 200 are finished and the remainder sold as stores. Last October, pure Cheviot stores sold at £64.50.
Looking forward, Mr Smith says the present system seems to be working well. “We have a good relationship with Natural England and work well alongside the estate’s shooting business. At the moment there is just myself and one full-time employee, with the only contract work being chopping grass.
“There is a case for more cattle, but against this there is only a limited area suitable for outwintering cattle and this is subject to grazing restrictions under our HLS agreement.
“The rest of the farm is too wet for outwintering cattle, so any additional cattle would need to be brought inside.
“Also we have to bring the cattle off the SSSI area during the summer to allow the high brown fritillary butterflies to breed.”
He says the Luing cattle are a little smaller than some in the breed, but suit the farm’s needs well. “Luings were a risk for me when I took them on as, at the time, not many people were farming them around here.
“We are now at a stage where 49 per cent of all Luings sold at last year’s Castle Douglas annual sale came into northern England.”