Facing the need to improve market returns, a breed with roots in the Scottish Borders is growing in popularity among sheep farmers in Wales. Barry Alston reports...
For most Welsh sheep farmers with grazing ground running up to 610 metres and above, there are few options as far as breed choice is concerned.
Add in outdoor lambing and the Welsh Mountain, with its proven hardiness, is the one that fits the bill for many – and over the years there have been some striking improvements which have increased the size of the breed’s traditionally reared lambs.
Some producers have also tried a variety of measures aimed at lifting lamb values, but have found the most popular terminal sire breeds have not matched up to their performances on lower land.
Dafydd Jones and his wife, Delyth, have been down that road and were far from satisfied with the results, until they took up a suggestion that the North Country Cheviot could well be worth a try.
Both hail from council estates in North Wales with non-farming backgrounds, but Mr Jones went out to work on farms in the Trawsfynydd area of Gwynedd after leaving school at the age of 15.
A move southwards came with a job opportunity at the ADAS Trawscoed Experimental Farm, Aberystwyth, as a tractor driver and relief milker.
He says: “Milking cows was not for me. I left there for a job as shepherd for the late Ceredigion farming MP Geraint Howells, until in 1982 we were able to buy Brynceiro Farm from the family and where we now live overlooking the village of Ponterwyd.”
Contract shearing, dipping and fencing in the area, along with general farmwork, eventually led to the purchase of a second farm, a 242-hectare (600-acre) holding further up the hill, taking the overall ownership up to 364ha (900 acres) running from 330m by the house, to 370m at its peak in the heart of the Cambrian Mountains.
Participation in environmental schemes, however, means grazing on about 80 per cent of the farm is not allowed between October 1 and April 1, thereby affecting overall stocking levels.
“Our stocking rate is no different than if we were farming on the top of Snowdon,” Mr Jones says.
“As a result we now keep fewer ewes than in the past, which means finding ways of getting the best returns we can for our lambs. There were sheep here when we bought the farm.
“They were mainly Specklefaced, but it was only possible to send the barren or empty ewes up to the highest ground.
“Their lambs would just not thrive up there, so we went back to our North Wales roots and bought hardy Welsh ewes that were more in keeping with the conditions we have here.
“We keep the main flock pure, selling most of the lambs as finished through Devil’s Bridge market or occasionally Welshpool and have been very successful in the showring having taken the breed championship at the Royal Welsh Show no less than five times in succession.
“Over the years we have tried putting some of the ewes to what are the most popular terminal sire breeds, but time and time again the hardiness was missing given our conditions.
“We have lambed some ewes indoors, but found that on turnout they did not thrive so well. Losses to foxes were higher, too.
“It seemed that having been housed, the ewes were not as strong in standing up to a fox as those which had lambed outdoors with their far more aggressive defensive trait.
“By chance I saw some North Country Cheviot crossbred lambs and decided to give that approach a go.
“We bought our first Park type tup at the Builth Wells ram sale from David Pittendreigh’s flock at Llanllwni, Carmarthenshire, with subsequent purchases also coming from him as well as Gwynne Davies, at Llanddewi Brefi.
“While we still keep our main flock as pure Welsh Mountain we put all the five-year-old draft ewes to a Cheviot ram and winter them on our lower ground for a mid-March lambing.
“We find they perform exceptionally well with a 180 per cent plus scanning level and, most important of all, provide a better financial return – on average giving us up to £15 a head extra.
“The lambs get nothing but grass and milk from their mother and can easily reach 42kg straight off the hill compared with 33-35kg for the pure Welsh at the same age.
"We have tried keeping some of the crossbred ewe lambs and putting them to a Texel ram, but again found they did not perform too well under our conditions. The hardiness was not quite there.
“Compared with the range of terminal sires we have used, the North Country Cheviot crossbred lambs are far easier to manage. No matter how cold and wet it might be, they remain alert and are just as fast to suckle as the Welsh.
“Above all they sell well in the market and we find the same buyers looking for our lambs so they must be happy.
“We are certainly well pleased with the North Country Cheviot influence. We would definitely not have continued with it if the lambs had not come up to scratch.”