Familiar faces in North Country Cheviot circles, Bill and Fanny Elliot have had the tenancy at Hethpool for more than 20 years. With a change of hands approaching, Hannah Park paid them a visit.
Hethpool, on the outskirts of Wooler, Northumberland, has long provided an ideal setting for breeding North Country Cheviot sheep.
Set in the picturesque College Valley, not far from the Scottish Border, Hethpool and neighbouring Fleehope Farm, five miles apart, span over some 1,012 hectares (2,500 acres) of hill ground and are home to 900 Cheviot and 450 Blackface sheep.
The flocks are managed by Bill and Fanny Elliot, who have been tenants of the College Valley Estate since November 1999.
It has been home to Bill for more than 60 years. His father Gilbert previously held the position of estate manager for College Valley, where he oversaw some 4,856ha (12,000 acres), up to 5,600 ewes and a 200-head suckler herd, together with numerous shepherds and other farm staff. Gilbert managed the estate from 1955 until he passed away in 1980, with Bill managing it from 1980 until 1999, before the estate was divided and let.
Hill sheep are well-suited to the upland unit, which sees ground at Hethpool rising from 112 metres (400ft) to 488m (1,600ft), while the hill at Fleehope rises some 603m (1,980ft) above sea level at its highest point.
The hefted flocks here can be traced back centuries. They were in situ when they took on the tenancy, but Bill and Fanny have built on and developed breeding lines in both flocks. In the process, they have garnered reputations as breeders of quality North Country Cheviot tups and females.
Bill clearly delights in working with the Cheviot breed and keeping track of and recording breeding lines is evidently somewhat of a passion.
He says: “Cheviots are so kind as mothers, they are milky and a pleasure to work with. The beauty of the breed is you can buy a quality carcase for sensible money.”
The aim is to retain or sell most female progeny as breeding stock. This sees 265 Cheviot ewe lambs kept annually as replacements and about 350 or so sold privately off-farm to various breeders around the country.
Bill says: “Female trade has been good this year. What you see is what you get with them, and they are in demand.
“We also sell draft ewes as five-crops at Lockerbie each year, and they generally get on very well here. They have sold to a five-year average of £111.”
Bill also sells two-shear Cheviot tups through Lockerbie, Lairg and Dingwall marts each year, which have done well through the years.
About 30 are sold through the different centres annually. The top price he has achieved to date being £8,000 in 2016, with tups across each selling to a four-year average of £1,283.
Bill says: “The main reason we sell as two-shears is because we will use them as shearlings on-farm first, so we know they work and hopefully will not disappoint customers in that respect.”
The only bought-in sheep on-farm are breeding tups, generally in the form of two new Cheviots and one Blackface per year.
Cheviot tups which have bred well at Hethpool include Torrish Cardinal, bought in 2006 for £2,800, which has bred 16 sons selling to an average of £2,028 over three years.
Attonburn Grand Slam was bought for £12,000 in 2010 and has bred 49 sons, which have averaged £1,487. In 2013, Bill and Fanny purchased Brackside Northernlight for £16,000, which Bill says has bred well, with sons having sold to £8,000 and which is still going strong as a nine-shear with a perfect mouth.
Eight of the 34 tups for sale this year are sons by home-bred Hethpool Tower, which sold at Dingwall last year as a four-shear for £3,400.
Remaining males and any ewe lambs which are not sold as breeders go to Randall Parker, aiming to average more than 18kg deadweight from October to December, with the first away off grass and later stubble turnips. Any Cheviot lambs which are not fit by this point are sold as stores to a farm in East Anglia.
When it comes to breeding, Cheviots are all kept pure alongside the main of the Blackface ewes. Blackface tups will go out for 20 days, after which tups will change and Cheviots will get any returners.
Without much shed space and room only to hold about 30 sheep in poor weather, lambing is all done outside from March 28, starting with the Blackface ewes and followed by the Cheviots from about April 15.
Bill and Fanny, who until retiring recently worked as a practice nurse in nearby Coldstream alongside working on-farm, will lamb the Blackies, before a local lamber comes in to help once the Cheviots get going.
Cheviot ewes scanned at 164 per cent this year, the main of which, barring any triplets and leaner ewes, will remain on one of three enclosed hills until lambing.
Bill says: “There are three enclosed hills on Hethpool, with sheep split between each. Ewe lambs kept on those hills will never be off them.
“Twins and singles are lambed separately, as soon single lambs are up and sucked they are away back to the hill with twins kept in enclosed fields until after clipping time, the last of them away to the hill usually by mid-July.”
A lambing percentage of 151 per cent was calculated this year post-tailing.
Although Bill has previously done some performance recording work, this ceased about six years ago.
He says: “I was performance recording one hill, about 210 ewes, for a few years. It was interesting, and I have increased lambing percentage on that hill and probably lamb weights. But it was costly and I did not feel I was seeing a return on the investment, and because we are all outdoor lambing, it was also a lot of work to carry out.”
With their Farm Business Tenancy (FBT) agreement now coming to an end, Bill and Fanny are set to retire in November this year, although they will be staying in the area, having bought a house and a small amount of land nearby.
They will be succeeded by the Rock family, David, his wife Alison, their son James and James’ partner Isla King, who will be taking over on a 10-year FBT arrangement following a competitive application and handover process during the last 13 months.
Tenant farmers on a privately owned estate in Stirlingshire for some 30 years, the new family had been looking for a unit which could support both generations for a number of years.
Their previous setup incorporated a 526ha (1,300-acre) hill farm supporting 1,000 ewes, while James had been running his own contract farming arrangement in Highland Perthshire.
Having built up their search latterly after the estate was sold to a developer and the decision to cease the farming operation in favour of forestry establishment was made, the family did not hesitate to put themselves forward when Hethpool was advertised.
David says: “It is very rare an opportunity like this comes up to take on two hill farms with two exceptional flocks of sheep which have been very well run.
“One of the main incentives for us was the security thanks to the length of tenancy on offer, which is not so common anymore, especially in Scotland.
“We are able to plan ahead and have the chance to put more into it, but it also offers that security for the future and is hopefully an opportunity James can continue to build on.”
The transition so far, the family says, has been a very smooth process.
James says: “We would have perhaps liked to have visited a bit more this year if Covid-19 travel restrictions had not been an issue, but that aside it has been fine. Bill and Fanny are good people who have done a phenomenal job and set high standards which we hope we can continue.
“We had been looking for a unit which could be sustainable for me and Dad, where we could work closer together, and this provides just that. It is the move of a lifetime for us.”