There has been a distinct increase in the popularity of North Country Cheviot sheep in the West Country. Rebecca Jordan reports.
Today’s young farmers, desperate to establish themselves on the farming ladder, are struggling to find a foothold as land prices remain unrealistic and the price of inputs continues to erode any financial margin.
Some have realised capital by taking grass keep and managing stock in an extensive system. Ben Collings, 29, and Sam Rogers, 21, are doing just this by successfully breeding North Country Cheviots in neighbouring parishes on the edge of Bodmin Moor, Cornwall.
Mr Collings says: “The North Country Cheviot is a big, versatile, hardy sheep. If you want to put a terminal sire on it you get a good finished lamb. If you choose to use a Bluefaced Leicester or something similar, quality ewe lambs are the result. It is possible to quickly adapt how you breed these ewes to meet whichever market has the most potential.”
Mr Collings moved to Penhale Gate, St Clether, Launceston, in 2012 and runs more than 200 ewes and 25 Aberdeen-Angus cross Hereford suckler cows across 30 hectares (74 acres) of grassland.
“This ground rises to 950ft and the sheep live outdoors year round,” he says.
“We lambed the Cheviots outside this year and, to be honest, I do not know why we have not done it before. I do not think these sheep like coming inside.”
Currently he keeps 160 North Country Cheviots ewes. Most are bred pure to increase and improve the ewe flock. In the near future, 50 will be kept pure and the rest will be bred to a maternal sire to produce breeding ewe lambs.
A Cheviot ram also runs with 60 Welsh Mountain ewes and any ewe lambs are kept and bred to a Southdown. These lambs are finished in 14 weeks with no creep, killing out at 20kg deadweight at Jaspers abattoir. A Southdown is also put across ewe lambs produced when Mr Collings uses a Suffolk ram on Cheviot ewes.
Mr Collings also enjoys showing sheep. This year he secured champion female and reserve breed champion at Royal Cornwall with a four-tooth North Country Cheviot ewe, which also went on to take the inter-breed championship at Liskeard. This is the first year Royal Cornwall has put on North Country Cheviot classes, due to the high number of entries received.
Mr Rogers, from Granite Steppes, Advent, Camelford, also exhibited successfully. His grandfather, Alan Finnemore, founded the current flock of 350 pure North Country Cheviots 40 years ago and Mr Rogers has now registered them and taken out breed membership. The reason; he has recently taken on 49ha (121 acres) of grass on a five-year tenancy.
The aim is to increase sheep numbers and his goal is to take a pen of North Country Cheviot rams to the NSA ram sale at Builth Wells.
He says: “I want to do more with them now. I have picked out the best and lamb them two weeks earlier to give them the best chance. They will be the basis of my improved flock. I want them bigger and stronger.”
Mr Rogers admits the reason his current ewes might be tighter to the ground is all the hoggs go to the common ground every summer until October.
“It means they do not have the best grass in front of them, but there are two ways of looking at it. The Cheviot does well there and is therefore cheaper to keep.”
In fact, Mr Rogers believes the Cheviot produces the best commercial lambs of all the hill breeds.
“They are ideal to lamb outdoors. Their lambs are lively and ewe lambs born from a Cheviot crossed with a Bluefaced Leicester are second to none. We keep these and put them to a Suffolk.”
Jock Muirhead, 28, and his fiancee Katherine Bigwood have a farm tenancy at Manor Farm, Williton, on the edge of Exmoor, Somerset. Before moving south seven years ago, Mr Muirhead was shepherd to the North Country Cheviots at Hownam Grange, Kelso, Scotland.
He says: “I have grown up with these sheep and love showing. However, both Kath and I have full-time jobs. We needed a breed which was going to make money in a system where they did not need hands-on attention 24-seven.”
They run 30 pedigree ewes and manage them over any grass keep they can get their hands on.
“Most of the grass is marginal but, until we can get our own farm, it is all we have available. We might not be on Exmoor but there is plenty of rain and it can get rough in winter. The North Country Cheviot is ideal in this situation as they are good-skinned sheep, great on their feet and do not need a lot of attention. They are milky and have been straightforward to lamb, at 175 per cent with a high proportion of twins.”
Mr Muirhead has the showing bug and is working hard at improving his ewes. To generate the cash to do this he puts a North Country Cheviot on Suffolk cross Mule drafts and sells these with their lambs at £64/life.
“It is a great cross. The lambs are quality and hit the ground running.”
Mr Muirhead has had tremendous success in the showring this year. He secured a first with a home-bred ewe lamb at The Royal Welsh, as well as second with an old foundation ewe. His gimmer was first and breed champion at The Royal Bath and West Show in the hill and upland section, with the same ticket also awarded to his ewe lamb, ram lamb, old ewe and shearling ram.
Robert Jordan, 39, farms in partnership on Dartmoor with his father John and brother David, 36, at Moortown, Gidleigh, Devon. They run 120 North Country Cheviot ewes at 30 metres (100 feet) alongside Scotch Blackface, Herdwicks, Mules and Texels.
This flock is well established. Their old ram won any other native pure breed champion at Devon County. It then took North Country Cheviot breed champion at Royal Cornwall Show. Shearling rams from Moortown have been forward at Builth Wells NSA Ram Sale for a number of years. They averaged £712 for four last year. However, demand for females has increased dramatically in the past two years.
Mr Jordan says: “Like everybody else, we cannot breed enough females for ourselves and to meet demand. With costs spiralling out of control we are all looking at how we make a profit on any lamb born. These sheep seem to be hitting all the right buttons at the moment because they are so hardy and, for a hill breed, produce a good quality lamb which they look after well.”
Julie Williams, 29, based at Northacombe, Ilsington, Devon, is well known for showing pedigree Aberdeen-Angus cattle. She has just bought a shearling ram from the Jordans to put across the 50 North Country Cheviot ewes she bought from Sam Pedrick, 25.
Ms Williams, who owns 15 hectares (37 acres) and rents another 111ha (274 acres) in three blocks, says: “I have been selling Suffolk cross lambs at 12-16 weeks old at 39-45kg in Exeter market but I like genetics and following blood lines, especially on the female side. My husband Ed and I decided to sell six cows and five calves to invest in a pedigree sheep breed which I can run on a commercial basis alongside our dozen pedigree Aberdeen-Angus, 100 pedigree South Devons and the 170 calves bought-in to finish on contract.
“The North Country Cheviot ticked all the boxes and I like the look of them. They will do well on the rougher ground we rent, are commercially viable and we have moorland rights so will summer on the common. If we can lamb them in February, creep feed the lambs and wean the ewes at the end of May, it will be possible to turn the ewes onto the moor over summer and save on grass keep. To achieve this, Ed and I are working hard at improving our grassland by reseeding with white clover, tetraploids, Timothy and chicory whenever feasible.”
Mr Pedrick runs 160 ewes extensively across 36ha (89 acres) at Brimley Farm, Newton Abbot, Devon. Although this closed flock was founded 50 years ago by his grandparents Maurice and Glenda Mortimore, Mr Pedrick registered it this year.
He says: “I would sooner breed a maternal sheep than a terminal sire. Such is the demand for females I could sell any amount. Their popularity seems to stem from the fact they are pretty low maintenance, as far as sheep go, but they are smart for a hill breed and produce a lamb which is worth something at the end.”
Welsh Mountain ewes crossed with a North Country Cheviot: Ewe lambs bred to a Southdown finish in 14 weeks with no creep and kill out at 20kg deadweight
Suffolk cross Mule drafts crossed with a North Country Cheviot ram sold as couples resulting in £64/life this spring
Ewe lambs born to a North Country Cheviot crossed with a Bluefaced Leicester. These lambs are then put to a Suffolk