Two Hampshire Down sires were introduced in 2005 with the aim of reducing lamb finishing times on the Galbraith family’s mixed farm in Cumbria.
Fast-forward to the present day and they have a noted pedigree flock. Wendy Short paid them a visit...
Every acre of grass is precious at Endmoor Farm, near Kendal, with pressure to provide grazing and forage for the dairy cows and the need to maximise sheep enterprise profitability by maintaining a large commercial ewe flock.
This is made up of 260 Mule and Mule-cross continental ewes, a percentage of which go to the Hampshire Down, with the rest put to a Texel or Texel cross Beltex tup. Judith Galbraith, who is also a part-time veterinary surgeon, says:
“It is extremely important to us that all of the lambs are away by the end of the summer, to free up grazing for the maximum number of breeding sheep.
“We started with two Hampshire Down tups and a ewe and we quickly found that their lambs were ready between 14 and 21 days earlier, compared with the other crossbreeds.
“We strive to achieve good conformation in both the pure and the crossbred Hampshire Downs and more than 90 per cent will reach R3L and above when sold deadweight. We continue to use continental rams, as we like to spread risk by having a range of lamb types to suit a variety of markets throughout the main selling period.
“We also have a Hampshire Down cross Texel tup, which looks like a real powerhouse and has been used for the first time this year. His lambs out of the Mule have grown rapidly and have a nice shape.”
The December lambing period for the 35 Graylen pedigree Hampshire Down ewes has been chosen because the Galbraiths like to showcase their flock at several events throughout the summer and forward lambs tend to be favoured by the judges.
“As the flock is MV-accredited, there is also a requirement to vacate and thoroughly clean the buildings again ahead of the commercial flock being brought indoors for lambing,” adds Mrs Galbraith.
The Hampshire Down breeding ewes are held on restricted grazing until a fortnight before they go to the tup and are housed a couple of weeks before lambing. Turnout usually follows within a couple of weeks, weather permitting.
“Hampshire Downs look appealing with their woolly fleeces and for that reason some people think they are not hardy, but they thrive on our Cumbrian holding,” Mrs Galbraith says.
“The purebred ewes and their very young lambs survive perfectly well outside in the winter, even in a light snowfall.
“Their diet is supplemented with concentrate feed and haylage until the grass growth gets underway, although they will often ignore the forage unless the weather turns very bad.
“There is a cut-off period for giving the ewes concentrate feed four weeks after lambing, but the lambs are brought on with a standard creep before weaning at 12-14 weeks.
“The ram lambs may get a small amount of concentrate feed depending on grass quality and their general condition, in order to prepare them for shows or sales.
“The ewe lambs will have a grass-only diet until they lamb as shearlings, even if they are to be shown.”
Lambing percentages for the pedigrees are equal to the figures produced by the commercial flock at 190-200 per cent.
“There is an assumption that some pedigree flocks will only average 150 per cent lambing, but in fact we have found the Hampshire Down to be a fairly prolific breed,” Mrs Galbraith says.
“We are very happy when twins are scanned because it leaves more lambs to sell, of course.
“Our records show that multiple births have little effect on lamb growth rates and that is partly because the ewes will normally carry plenty of milk.
The Hampshire Down is a large sheep, with the ewes weighing roughly 85-90kg.
“One of our primary aims is to breed rams which pass on high growth rates and this has increased the average stature of our flock.
“But we are moving towards breeding a slightly smaller animal, to improve ewe efficiency.”
The rapid growth of the purebred lambs means there are occasions when they have reached the top end of market requirements at 50-55kg, by the time prices start to rise for the Easter trade.
Meanwhile, the Hampshire Down crossbreds and the rest of the mature commercial flock start lambing in mid-February, with the hoggs following in April.
The marketing policy combines deadweight and liveweight selling, according to market conditions and finishing lamb numbers.
When it comes to show results, one of the most notable achievements to date was when the Galbraiths’ performance-recorded ram lamb won the breed championship at the Hampshire Down Sheep Breeders Association national show at Royal Three Counties show this year.
One of a pair of twins, the lamb is by Graylen Laird and out of Graylen Harley sired ewe.
The family has also taken the breed championship at Great Yorkshire Show with Graylen D’Artagnan, as well as winning the reserve supreme championship with a shearling ewe at the Hampshire Down Sheep Breeders’ Association national show last year.
“Another misconception is high index animals cannot do well in the show ring,” says Mrs Galbraith.
“This year’s top prize ram lamb falls into the top 5 per cent on breed index and we often show some of our highest-indexed animals.”
Some 40-50 per cent of the ram lambs are sold for breeding to both pedigree and commercial flocks and the current highest price paid is £800, with semen also offered for sale.
All of the shearling rams produced this year will go in an eightram consignment to commercial farms in France.
Females are mainly purchased by pedigree breeders to a top of 1,100gns and some are sold in-lamb at the official sales.
“We feel the Hampshire Down has a lot to offer in a commercial situation,” says Mrs Galbraith.
She and her husband, Graham, are show judges for the breed and Mrs Galbraith will take on the role of Association president this autumn.
“The ewes give birth without intervention and their lambs are quick to suckle,” she says.
“But one of the breed’s greatest assets is its ability to finish quickly off grass. This trait could become even more important for sheep enterprises of the future.”