Starting a pedigree flock from scratch brings many challenges. Chloe Palmer hears about the highs and the lows of establishing the Greenhills flock of North Country Cheviots.
DESPITE coming from a farming family, James Metcalfe has built up his pedigree flock of North Country Cheviots from nothing. He was new to the breed, but is now one of its strongest supporters.
He says: “I decided to start my own flock in 2011 and the first sheep I looked at were at a dispersal sale of the Tegsnose North Country Cheviot flock. It was the first time I had seen the breed and I was impressed by their size and deep bodies.
“I bought seven ewes because it was all I could afford and I have had to build up very slowly since then as I have earnt enough money to buy a few more ewes each time.”
Since buying these ewes, a couple of which remain in the flock having produced 14 lamb crops, Mr Metcalfe has refined his view of what he is looking for in his sheep:
He says: “I have the Park type of Cheviot and I mix up the Caithness blood with the Border type which are finer boned and less extreme with flatter faces. I find this type of sheep is better suited to the English market.
“The Cheviot’s versatility means there is not a farming situation in the UK where they cannot thrive as they will adapt to the harshest environments but be prolific in the lowlands, producing a high quality carcase.”
Mr Metcalfe now has 120 ewes but with this year’s ewe lambs, he hopes to put 200 Cheviot ewes to the ram this autumn. Of the lambs produced, Mr Metcalfe anticipates 75 per cent will be commercial and he plans to retain almost all of the females either within his pedigree or commercial flocks.
This expansion has been achieved initially with just one small field on the family farm in Edale, in the Peak District, but with a further five blocks of land dotted around north Derbyshire.
Renting land in different places brings its own challenges as Mr Metcalfe points out:
“Dad has let me have just one field behind our farmhouse year round and so I have had to rent land all over the place for my sheep. Last year we had a devastating blow when we had the chance to rent some new ground, only to find it was contaminated with heavy metals.
“We lost 22 ewe lambs of the 45 we had grazed there from heavy metal poisoning last December, but we had already spent a fortune on post mortem and laboratory analysis before we received the final diagnosis.”
Mr Metcalfe has sought the advice of many in the North Country Cheviot breed society and has been bowled over by the help and support he has received from producers as far north as Caithness, especially former president, Rod McKenzie at Muirton.
This has helped him improve the quality of his flock and build numbers without spending beyond his means. He says:
“I realised I would need to use artificial insemination to enable me to use the rams of the quality I was looking for as I could not afford to purchase them. I bought the last batch of semen from Hownam Grange Super Server.com, a ram with old bloodlines.
“I used it on 16 ewes and unfortunately of the 20 lambs born, only three were ewes and of course they had to be the worst lambs in the bunch. But I have kept eight of the ram lambs and they are superb.”
Mr Metcalfe admits he has learnt through trial and error over the last six years but has relished the opportunity of doing things his own way.
“I have lambed on a different date every year for the last six years to try and work out what works best on this farm. This year it has gone full circle and I lambed on the same date I started with back in 2012.
“We have a very late spring here as the farm is on the north side of a high ridge and the ground is very wet. So I have to balance this with the need to try and achieve some size on my lambs because I show them and I will be competing with people who lamb much earlier.”
Showing has taken on increased importance for the flock and Mr Metcalfe now shows at seven or eight shows each year. He has been instrumental in bringing the new English National Championship for the North Country Cheviot class to Hope Show:
He says: “I have made it very difficult for myself to win at my local show because now we get some of the best flocks in the country exhibiting at Hope. There were over 80 sheep in the Cheviot classes last year.
“But showing is very important for me because we rarely have other breeders in the area coming to look at our sheep down here so I only receive feedback on the quality of my own animals if I show them.”
“Social media has also been very effective for promoting the flock and my Facebook page has allowed me to reach Scottish producers.”
Mr Metcalfe has developed a clear view of the type of animals he is looking to produce. He says: “As a pedigree breeder I believe that above all else I have a responsibility to the industry to breed the right animal for the commercial market. Beyond this, I concentrate on producing an animal with the correct breed characteristics.
“For my female line, I am looking for a good square black nose, the ears must be at the right angle and she must have a pretty eye and a slightly roman nose. I prefer a bit more bone and a good leg at each corner, with enough width between the front legs.”
“The type of ram I buy depends on the how I want to improve the flock at the time. So I have just bought a shorter ram which is quite square because I want to bring the size of my replacements down a little. I am really pleased with his lambs so far.”
Despite running entirely separate businesses, he and his father, Robin, work closely and they have recently become joint tenants of Hardenclough Farm, owned by the National Trust. This means Mr Metcalfe will now bring more of his sheep back to Edale prior to lambing.
He says: “We scan in early January and many of the ewes with twins and all of those with triplets will come inside. The singles will stay outside along with the ewes with twins which have wintered well.
“The ewes with triplets are fed 1kg of an 18 percent protein ewe roll and those with twins have 0.3kg per day for six weeks before lambing and we continue to feed them a small amount after lambing.
“This year we have lambed at 190 percent and turned out a similar number so this year I will be able to be very selective about the ewe lambs I register.”
Mr Metcalfe weans in early August and with the short grass growing season in the Peak District, ensuring the ewes enter the autumn season in optimum condition becomes the top priority.
“We will move the ewes onto fresh grazing with the teaser rams and use a multi vitamin drench 17 days before the stock rams go in for three weeks.”
In late summer, those ewe lambs not making the grade as breeding replacements and surplus ram lambs will be finished on grass plus a tiny amount of concentrate and most will be taken by Mr Metcalfe to Beard’s butchers near Stockport for slaughter.
Mr Metcalfe says: “I sell most of my lambs boxed to local customers, friends and family and we receive fantastic feedback.”
Mr Metcalfe hopes to have enough quality registered shearling rams to sell through Clitheroe and Lockerbie sales this autumn, with the remaining unregistered breeding stock sold at Bakewell.
Notwithstanding the setbacks Mr Metcalfe has had to contend with, he is resolute in his goal of establishing the name of the Greenhills flock amongst the elite North Country Cheviot producers. He says: “I am aiming to reach a flock size of 500 in the next five years with 20 percent of these registered.
“Becoming established with a breed I knew nothing about at the start has been a real challenge but it has been so rewarding and I have had so much support and guidance along the way from other breeders.”