Adstone Lodge, set in sleepy rural backwaters near Northampton, may seem a long way from the hustle and bustle of the Mule gimmer lamb sales up in the North of England, but the two places are well connected – and have been for nearly half a century.
Sid Smith first ventured “Up North” back in 1972, buying initially Mules and Mashams, though soon just sticking to the North of England Mule, which have been at the centre of their farm business ever since. In 1974, they were heading back up the road again and brought back another 200 gimmer lambs to add to the flock.
The family came to Adstone Lodge in 1959 and when, in the late 60s, they turned from arable to sheep, they kept hearing about the Mules from up north doing a good job and decided to investigate further. The first sheep cost around £7-8/head. They say they have been addicted ever since…. although the costs have gone up a bit since then.
Sid and his wife, Jane, now run the business with their grandson, Dan Branson, running around 500 acres or so, some owned and some taken. They run 1100 sheep altogether, lambing around 900, and get between 170-180% turnout at lambing, including the gimmer lambs.
They see the North of England Mule ewe as “the flagship of the fleet,” as it combines everything they want in a sheep, namely excellent mothering, plenty of milk and plenty of lambs – and hard wearing to boot.
Sid has seen the fashion change a lot since they first went north, but believes the Mule is a far superior sheep today than it was back then, with the sheep being more uniform and having better skins.
“It’s easier to buy good sheep now than it used to be, as more people than ever are aiming for that market,” he notes, adding: “The North of England Mule continues to fit well into our system, meeting the ever-changing market demands really well.”
They haven’t just bought sheep for themselves. One year, Sid bought a further 6000 gimmer lambs for his neighbours, mainly transported south by good friend Ken Metcalfe, from Apersett, Hawes, who has brought tens of thousands of sheep into the Adstone Lodge yard over the years.
They say one thing they enjoy about the sales is not just the sheep, but meeting fellow farmers and they have built up great friendships with many breeders over the years, ranging from the auctioneers such as the late Gordon Pratt, Hawes, to breeders such as John Thorpe.
Sid travelled north every autumn, taking in sales from centres such as Hawes, Bentham, Kirkby Stephen, Barnard Castle and Leyburn, where, on his first visit there, he bought over 600 lambs, around a third of the sale, and no one from the mart raised an eyebrow or asked who he was. The North of England Mule gimmer lamb sales form the basis of Sid and Jane’s ‘holidays,’ with a full week of sales and catching up with old friends.
Traditionally, they always used to use Suffolks across everything, but they now put Beltex rams across the gimmer lambs, having also tried Charollais too. “The gimmer lambs are still growing in that first year and so using a tup like the Beltex, which produces smaller lambs at birth, helps reduce stress and work with them,” comments Sid.
The ewes are still run with Suffolks, which produce big, quick fleshing lambs, as well as Texels. Gimmers from these are retained and they sell 150-200 a year at the Thame highlight. They keep a young flock, with the oldest sheep six toothers. Sid says by following this system their draft ewes retain their value and he also feels this helps keep health problems to a minimum, as opposed to only selling when fully cast.
The lambing, which takes place in March, involves gathering a good team around, with Dan’s wife, Vicki, a big help, as well as Sian Stokes, who is in her second year at RVC, and will be coming back for her third year’s lambing next year. This year also saw a debut appearance for Rebecca Nelson, from Hawes, joining stalwarts Annie Bonner and Ollie King in the lambing sheds.
Dan has judged classes at the pre-sale shows at several of the autumn NEMSA sales and says he finds the whole experience a real privilege to be able to be in that position.
They fully appreciate the work that goes into presenting and breeding the stock, and also the fact that year upon year North of England Mule breeders stick to the founding principles of the breed as the ultimate breeding sheep within the national flock, where most fat lambs in England can trace their linage back to the hills of Northern England.
As the 2019 NEMSA sales season fast approaches, details and dates of all fixtures at auction marts across the North of England can be found at www.nemsa.co.uk