Swaledale and North of England Mule sheep and conservation go hand in hand at Branchend Farm, Langley, near Hexham.
David, Callum and Linda Murray at Branchend Farm
Long winters on the farm which runs at between 1,000ft to 1,200ft above sea level impacted on the profitability of keeping cattle for David and Linda Murray so in 1993 they began to concentrate on sheep.
“Traditionally, we were running Swaledale ewes and we wanted to keep a Mule flock but because we had to house the cattle from mid October often until late into May we didn’t have the sheds to lamb Mules with twins inside,” said David.
“We worked out our profit margins and decided we would be better off with sheep than cattle. We wanted to keep it traditional though,” he added.
The tenanted farm runs to 500 acres of inside ground with around 400 acres hefted on neighbouring Allendale and Hexhamshire Common, where the Murrays are one of 22 graziers on the open fell.
An all sheep enterprise was also then favoured for entry into environmental stewardship, a natural progression for the Murrays who have for years worked with the RSPB in monitoring and encouraging numbers of birds on the farm, including black grouse, plover and other wetland birds.
The Murrays have carried out rush management for a number of years to improve nesting habitats for birds and as a result have lapwing, curlew, redshank and snipe nest on the farm.
Swaledale ewe with Mule lambsThe farm carries a flock of 400 registered Swaledale ewes, half of which are bred pure to produce flock replacements, and the remainder crossed with the Bluefaced Leicester to provide gimmer lambs for the North of England Mule flock of 500 ewes.
The Mules are crossed with the Suffolk and 100 of the crossbred progeny are put to the Beltex as hoggs.
Management of the sheep is very much a partnership for the Murrays - so much so that they have ‘his and hers’ quad bikes!
Linda looks after the outside feeding and she does the lambing inside. David does most of the shepherding as well as looking after getting in the silage and haylage crops. He also markets the lambs at Carlisle on a Monday.
During the summer, 200 of the Swaledale ewes are on the fell. This number is reduced in the winter to 120 to comply with the UELS and HLS environmental scheme agreements which cover the whole farm.
The sheep are fed before and after lambing time which begins on March 29 with the Swaledales crossed with the Bluefaced Leicester and most of the Mules. The Swaledales which are bred pure and the hoggs begin lambing on April 24.
Those carrying twins and triplets are lambed inside and turned out as soon as possible. The Murrays prefer the Swaledales which are pure bred to produce just one lamb while the Mules last year had a 193 % lambing.
Lambing tends to be a family affair with eldest daughter Shelley, who is married and lives in Annfield Plain, daughter Dominique who lives in Reading and son Callum, who is studying for a degree in computer engineering at Liverpool University all coming back to the farm to lend a hand.
All triplets generally are taken off their mothers and run as pet lambs to prevent damage to the ewes and the risk of mastitis. The pets are reared on a Shepherdess bucket system and weaned by five to six weeks old to keep milk replacer costs down.
The firsts lambs are sold straight off their mothers in mid August last year selling at £70 a head through Carlisle to peak at £108 in the prime ring to be regularly in the leading prices for Suffolk-sired lambs out of Mules. They are usually 42-44kg.
Some are sold store are sold store after early September through to March and these averaged around £60 a head last year. Mule and Swaledale wether lambs are usually sold on the hook and early this year the tail enders averaged £95 a head, with 32 out of 69 making over £100 apiece.
The Mule-Suffolk cross hoggs have a 100% lambing and their lambs are sold finished by November-December making £80-£85 a head at just over 40kg, aiming for both the home and export markets.
While currently all the Mule gimmer lambs are kept as replacements, some may be sold in the future.
Commercial Suffolk rams are bought mostly at Carlisle and some at Hexham with traditinal crossing type Bluefaced Leicesters bought at Lazonby and recent purchases from Messrs Coulthard at Davygill have produced particularly good gimmer lambs.
The flock has been closed, apart from the purchase of stock rams, for the last three years to avoid price fluctuations in the breeding sheep market.
Swaledale rams are sold at St John’s Chapel as shearlings and stock rams are bought at Kirkby Stephen or Hawes marts with investments of up to £4,000 being made. The flock is gradually being built back up the quality it was prior to it being taken out during 2001’s foot and mouth epidemic.
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