Darley Stud is famous for being part of the Maktoum Empire, in the heartland of global thoroughbred horse breeding, Newmarket.
Whichever way you turn there are big imposing gates and fine looking homes in this lush, rolling countryside, with names of stables familiar to the millions who follow horse racing around the world. It has been the home to horse racing since 1174, with King James basing his horses there during his reign in the early 17th century really putting it on the map.
Today there are around 3000 horses based in 60 stables around the town. What has all this to do with farming or even mule sheep you may wonder?
Dan Phipps, the flock manager at Darley stud is the man to ask. He has held this position at the stud, owned by HH
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, since 2006. Sheep have been viewed traditionally very much as part of the grassland management system for the horse paddocks for a long while, but very much the poor relative in terms of attention.
In this multi million pound horse industry the sheep enterprise is hardly ever going to be the top dog admittedly, but with proper management of the system, it can certainly be a very important cog in the system.
When Dan first started at Darley he found that sheep were, well, just sheep, and that there wasn’t too great an emphasis put on management or use of them over the 2500acre estate. Over the last few years this has been transformed and now the flock is flourishing under the new regime, helping to keep the grass paddocks in tip top order for the horses.
The sheep have to fit around the 650 thoroughbred horses on the estate, and initially Mule gimmers were bought and sold as shearlings, and just used as grazing stock, but in 2007 when livestock movements were shut down because of the FMD escaping from a government laboratory, the estate found themselves lambing 2400 ewes the following year, which put undue pressure on the grassland.
The decision was taken to tup the sheep and lamb around 1800 ewes in three batches over the Godolphin and Darley studs.
Each year Dan buys in around 300-340 North of England Mule gimmer lambs, depending on budgets, from the Alston Moor sale, where he finds the lambs come away from and thrive well.
“The Mules last us well, and give a great working life. We generally get at least four crops from our ewes, and still have a few sheep bought from way back, so hardy are they,” Dan notes.
Ewe lambs are brought into the system at Darley, vaccinated against abortion and with Footvax to help minimise feet problems, and they are lambed as shearlings. Dan feels this helps them settle into the system better and get acclimatised to the unit. “The mules are great grazers too, helping to keep the grass at its best for the horses, and good to handle as well,” he adds.
The Mules are tupped with Suffolk and Texel tups and over the last few years the better Suffolk cross females have been retained and run with a Charollais, providing a big, strong prime lamb which is in great demand. “I love the Mule sheep for their consistency. You can buy large, matching batches, and they all have great mothering ability and bring up twin lambs with ease, being such good milkers. We even leave some triplets on too, such is the ability of the sheep to produce” says Dan.
Another strong point of the mules at Darley Stud is the ability to finish lambs. Getting a good start from day one helps, and with a lambing of 200%, lambs are quick to finish, with the first draw of fat lambs starting in May from a late January lambing, aiming for a deadweight carcase of 20kg.Lambs are drawn every two weeks, and last year the entire crop of lambs was sold, averaging 19.7kg right through, meeting the requirements of the buyers easily.
Dan feels that conformation is vitally important to the future of the Mule, but this mustn’t be to detriment of the key features of the North of England Mule, its mothering ability, prolificacy and its milkiness, all these three core features are what makes the North of England Mule the best in the field.