If passion is the foundation to success, then one Oxfordshire-based young couple have every chance of making a name for themselves in the sheep industry, as Chrissie Long found out when she met Harry Bishop and Emily South.
Harry Bishop and Emily South have established their own successful sheep contracting businesses, as well as managing a flock of commercial ewes for Harry’s family, all the while continuing to grow a flock of pedigree Beltex sheep. And the young couple have achieved all this in just a couple of years.
“It’s simple for us – we live and breathe sheep farming,” says Harry.
Harry and Emily, both 23, have set their stall out as sheep farmers, but have done so off their own backs based on a family background of farming experience and, in Harry’s case, knowledge gained from working on sheep farms in Australia and New Zealand.
“My grandpa used to run 1,600 Mules nearby and when I was six years old he bought me 10 Herdwick sheep,” he recalls.
“I certainly found a passion for sheep from a young age. I struggled with school, but enjoyed my time at Plumpton Agricultural College and learnt a lot about commercial sheep farming practices.”
Taking that one step further Harry embarked on a year’s work placement in Australia and New Zealand, experiencing a wide variety of sheep farming practices. For 10 months, he worked on New Zealand’s South Island, running 10,000 Romney ewes which went to Sufftex rams. He also experienced dairy heifer rearing.
On his return two years later, he worked with Super Fine Merino sheep and learnt more about wool production, while a second trip saw him fuel his passion for finding the right sheep dog as well.
“I went to Australia wanting to learn more about working dogs and with a preference at home for yard working dogs, rather than field dogs,” he says.
“I soon fell for the Kelpies’ character and returned from my second trip out there with three Kelpies and a Smithfield, the latter being a traditional droving dog renowned for working the Smithfield markets.
“I learnt so much from my travels and worked closely with Ian McDougall in conjunction with Charollais Australia.”
Harry also developed the skill for shearing on his second trip. “Some of my farming friends think I’m mad. While it’s back-breaking work, I’d be happy shearing and crutching and doing yard work with sheep all year round,” he says.
That work makes up a large proportion of his client base, working self-employed alongside Joe Hope and Jake Belgrove. Together, the trio carry out tasks such as shearing, crutching, vaccination programmes and drenching across Oxfordshire. Providing Emily isn’t busy with her lambing clients, she adds her services to the mix.
Hailing from Selby, Yorkshire, Emily grew up on her family’s farm which ran a flock of Suffolk ewes before being wiped out with foot-and-mouth.
Deciding not to re-stock with livestock, the family focused their attention on arable farming.
“There wasn’t a lot of livestock in the surrounding area, so I had to move away for lambing work,” says Emily, who then spent two and a half years working with 800 Mules in Wendover, Aylesbury, having completed a ND in Agriculture at Askham Bryan.
“I loved the self-employed side of lambing jobs and decided to launch my own contracting business,” she adds. And in just 18 months Emily is responsible for 6,500 head within 25 miles of home at Fencott, carrying out routine sheep farming tasks and indoor and outside lambing, running two dogs alongside her.
“The dogs are a major part of the business,” adds Harry. “We don’t need to run expensive quad bikes when you can run with a couple of great dogs.
“Because my work is largely yard based, the Kelpies are excellent and I’ve trained them to run over the backs of sheep to keep filling up the race. They easily do the work of one if not two colleagues.”
But this year has already proved challenging for the couple as Emily’s best collie, Meg, is sadly suffering ongoing surgery after being ran over by hare coursers while working. “It was a harrowing time as I watched them plough her down right in front of me and we’re still appealing for witnesses in the area who may have seen a suspicious silver Mitsubishi L200 on neighbouring farmland,” she says.
“Not only are they part of the working team, when I’m out in fields working sheep, they are my companions as well. I wouldn’t be without them.”
While reflecting on her working life, Emily is incredibly thankful to her parents for supporting her move from Yorkshire to pursue her sheep farming passions.
“It’s been tough being a young, female, self-employed shepherd and I’ve faced my fair share of farmers not willing to employ a female,” she says. “But you have to rise above that and prove you are just as capable of doing the work.”
Taking Emily’s love of sheep one step further and wanting to remember her Yorkshire roots, she established her Chiltern flock of pedigree Beltex in 2016.
“I’ve always admired the Beltex for their extreme carcass qualities and I purchased my first ewe at the Thame Sheep Fair from Andrew and Becky Bishop’s flock, as well as a ewe from the Freckleton flock of Colin Roots.”
But that particular Thame Sheep Fair was to prove to be even more memorable, as not only did she establish her flock, she was also the underbidder on many sheep that Harry bought that day, sparking the early days of their relationship.
Now with Harry on board with the pedigree passion, the flock has grown with further females purchased from the Bishop’s flock.
“Andrew and Becky have been fantastic to us, eager to pass on their knowledge and have helped guide us with purchasing and breeding decisions,” comments Harry. “We like the extreme shape of the Beltex, but we like scale and length as well, two things not often associated with the breed.”
The couple run Beltex tups on Harry’s family’s Mule flock and can easily reach 45kg plus lambs. “It’s a myth Beltex can’t reach the stronger end of weights. They can, providing you buy the right tups.
There’s a sense of pride in selling great finished lambs at market and the Beltex breed is integral to that.”
The couple are also attending some shows and look forward to building on that presence throughout the year.
Last year saw them take a breed and reserve interbreed win at Bucks County Show and champion at Driffield. This year will see them step out further with show teams at Great Yorkshire and the Royal Welsh, as well as smaller, regional shows across the country.
“It’s a huge learning curve for us and I want to learn more about trimming as well. Showing is our holiday and the pedigree side of the business is our investment for our future,” adds Emily. “To get your name out in the selling world, you have to market yourself at shows and while we haven’t been winning with our own stock yet, there’s still a great deal of pride involved.”
As the couple embark on lambing their own pedigree sheep, the plan now is to increase numbers to a nucleus of up to 50 pedigree ewes and 100 recipients, of which they have started breeding their own to keep costs to a minimum.
“We’re looking at bringing in another dam line to the flock with the view of running three gene pools within the flock and will do more with AI and ET work in the future,” adds Emily.
“I love working for my clients, as the pressure isn’t on me as such, but I do like seeing the results of a flock that I’ve invested time and money in and can have total control of it’s future as well.”