Sheep farmers Steve and Sara Gibbons have taken the top sheep honours on four occasions at the Royal Welsh Winter Fair. Barry Alston finds out more.
Winning the supreme sheep championship at the Royal Welsh Winter Fair just once is quite a challenge. Winning it four times, as well as taking the overall reserve title twice, is something else.
But for one Breconshire farming family that became a reality at last year’s event.
Steve and Sara Gibbons and the follow-on generation of Mollie and Nick, both now into their 20s, took Llanelwedd’s top billing with a pair of Dutch Texel ewe lambs, weighing 87kg.
They found favour with overall judge John Hall, Cumbria, and later went under the hammer, selling to section judge Mike Rowlands, Llanidloes, Powys.
It was by no means the first success at the fair for the Black Mountains-based Gibbons family and remarkably all their victories have been down to home-bred entries.
Back in 2015 they topped the line with another pair of Dutch Texel ewe lambs. Bought for breeding, they sold for £1,500 apiece.
The best they could manage in 2012, however, was the reserve supreme placing for a pair of home bred Beltex, but that result was cushioned when the lambs later made £1,200 a piece in the sale ring.
At the 2007 fair the family was on top form, taking the supreme and reserve placings again with home-bred Beltex lambs, the champion pair weighing 98kg and leading the pure continental section, while the reserve pair had taken the butcher’s weight rosette.
Perhaps the most memorable championship win was in 2003 with a pair of pure Texels weighing 93.5kg.
That victory was significant in that the Gibbons became the first Welsh exhibitors to win the coveted supreme award.
Until then, ever since the winter fair began in 1990, the top sheep accolade had always gone to entries from the other side of Offa’s Dyke.
Last year’s success was remarkable on another account in that it came following what had been somewhat of a turbulent period for the family.
Mr Gibbons explains that had involved moving lock, stock and barrel from a tenanted holding at Llwynbrain, not far from Hay-on-Wye, to what initially was a 12-hectare (30-acre) field and nothing else, more than 305 metres (1,000 feet) further up in the hills.
He says: “Since then additional land has taken the total area of owned and rented ground to 92ha (227 acres), a purpose-built range of stock housing has been erected and we have nearly completed a brand new farmhouse.”
On the stock side, Dan-y-Mynydd, at Tregoyd, near Talgarth, is now the base for 440 ewes spread across pure-bred flocks of Texels, Charollais, Beltex and Blue Texels.
A new venture has seen an interest in Dassenkops. This is the genetically developed Dutch breed based around a white Texel on a Blue Texel which produces a black and white cross.
They are said to have promising carcase qualities and are increasingly being seen in open continental sections at summer shows. Markings can be similar to the Torwen Welsh Badger Face.
As well as keeping the breeds pure, Beltex rams go on to the Charollais to produce cross-bred tups. Lambing runs from the end of January through to mid-March, with home grown cereals retained for stock feed.
All the flocks now carry the Whatmore name, which has replaced the original Llwynbrain and Black Mountains prefixes, with breeding stock production being the main aim.
The name change came about in respect for a family very special to Mr and Mrs Gibbons.
When the couple met she was employed as farm manager and shepherdess to the West Midlands based Whatmore flock and when she left was presented with four Beltex ewes, along with the rights to the prefix when it was dispersed.
While there is a considerable demand for off-farm stock sales there have been some high prices in the auction rings. The family set what in 2014 was a 13,000gns record breed price tag for their one-crop ewe, Whatmore Vaneer.
It had been sired by their Royal Welsh Show breed champion, Whatmore Siren, and was bought by Shropshire breeders Paul and Christine Tippetts, shattering the previous breed record of 5,500gns that had been achieved by the Gibbons family the year before.
They may no longer hold the breed price record but as Whatmore breeding has filtered through to other Texel, Beltex and Blue Texel flocks, the name figures strongly in the pedigree listings at breed sales.
Over the years Mr and Mrs Gibbons have also been in considerable demand as show judges for events up and down the country, making little secret of the fact that on the day, breed preference is irrelevant.
What matters most of all in their eyes is the level of finish and fleshing from the shoulder through to the loin.
That to them is what turning out quality lambs is all about and to prove the point they go to great lengths to make sure any new stock ram they buy is up to the job.
Mr Gibbons says: “In the first year we will kill nearly all of his progeny and take a very close look at the cuts in my late uncle’s butcher’s shop. There is no better way of assessing a ram’s capabilities.
“We once paid 3,000gns for a very promising tup and he produced the worst lambs I have ever seen – proving you can not always go by looks and records alone. The real proof is what is on the ground.
“Primarily we are breeding for the commercial producer, selling most of our rams from home to repeat customers who must be satisfied or they would not keep coming back.”
He first set eyes on the Beltex breed in 1990 but admits that at the time could not afford them.
It was not until the late 1990s and after several years of working with top flockmasters that he bought his first pedigree animal – and several years after he had taken on the tenancy of Llwynbrain, a 2.5ha (31-acre) hill farm in the foothills of the Black Mountains.
But the family suffered a bitter blow in 2001 when 286 pedigree ewes, along with 41 pedigree Limousin cows, were lost in the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak.
Rebuilding the flock was considered a priority and sheep, bought in mainly from breeders in Oxfordshire and Shropshire, initially set the family back on the road to recovery, along with some 26 of their own pedigree Beltex ewes which were spared from contiguous culling.
There are plans to compete at the winter fair again this year with entries in a number of sections.
“As always, we will go into the ring with lambs prepared to the best of our ability – but what happens then is out of our hands,” says Mr Gibbons.
“We treat showing as a hobby and winning as a bonus.”