At just turned 30, Frank Kitching, recently elected chairman of the Skipton branch of the North of England Mule Sheep Association (NEMSA), is the youngest of its nine regional chairs – he beats new Hawes branch chairman Will Sedgley by seven years!

As ‘harvesters of the hills,’ both men share a long-held passion for the breed and clearly recognise the importance of future marketing and promotion, coupled with the need to encourage new, young blood to get involved with and actively participate in the work of the Association, with social media seen as an extremely powerful tool to this end.

The Kitchings in particular – brothers Richard and Charles, and their sons Frank, Jack and Thomas – are significantly increasing their Mule numbers from their picture-postcard base in the Yorkshire Dales at Grisedale Farm, Threshfield.

The family are custodians of a diverse and increasing spread of some 1,600 acres of land in total – a mix of hill and pasture. As well as their 400-acre holding in Threshfield, predominantly a hill farm, the Kitchings also run sheep on 450 acres of high fells above Buckden.

In addition, they farm land further down the valley towards Skipton, as well as in Cheshire,  and it is at these two locations where their lowland sheep are reared, though all are lambed back at home base for ease of management.

“We graze here, there and everywhere, but run our Mules on better grazing,” explained Frank. “We have always been a Swaledale sheep farm – we have around 1,400 ewes on the ground at the moment – but have now started to breed significantly more Mules from them, as we see this as the way forward.”

The ‘daddy’ of the breed is, of course, the Bluefaced Leicester ram and the family also runs a flock of some 30 sheep, breeding both its own tups and buying in others, mainly at Skipton and Hawes, to introduce fresh blood.

“However, we have no set rules here – there are plenty of good strains around locally,” said Frank, who described the past lambing time – the family lambs some 2,700 sheep in total across all breeds – as one of the most difficult on record, with an extremely harsh winter followed by a wet Spring. “It’s certainly been a hard time for sheep and they have done well to get through it all,” he noted.

The Kitchings currently have around 200 Mule ewes and, despite the unforgiving weather earlier this year, pretty much achieved their target of two lambs per ewe. Their ewe and wether lambs are sold through the local auction mart in Skipton, with 90% of the ewe lambs going under the hammer at the main September shows and sales, others later.

Some 150 gimmer lambs are also retained annually for breeding, as the Kitchings seek to at least quadruple their Mule holding to 800-plus over the next few years.

Frank explained: “While we have always bred Mules we have now taken on more land that will suit the breed. We have had all sorts of sheep over the years, including Continental-crosses, but none that can perform anywhere near as well as Mules. They tick all the right boxes and are now set to be the main part of our flock.

“They are easy to lamb, raise plenty of them, produce a lot of milk and look after their offspring well. Their hardiness is a strong point too – the Mule ewe is without doubt a good, long lasting and very versatile sheep.”

On the subject of breeding patterns, Frank said: “We have a strict policy on what we sell and what we keep. Genetics are important. The breed is a cross that works extremely well. The Mule ewe is an exceptional and prolific breeder. In addition, the Bluefaced Leicester ram is improving all the time to meet the modern traits you need in a tup to produce fantastic lambs.”

The Kitchings are long-established NEMSA members, though Frank’s appointment as Skipton branch chairman is a first for the family. He noted: “I joined the committee initially and have thoroughly enjoyed the experience, along with attending shows, meeting different people and learning from fellow Mule breeders.”

This year, Frank also hopes to attend some of the more high profile shows down country on behalf of NEMSA to further promote the breed and its attributes to a much wider audience of both current and potential breeders.

He is also looking forward to NEMSA’s 2018 show and sale season this autumn “We rely on hill farms to produce the Mule. We are the harvesters of the hills. We are taking a product to market and we obviously want it to do well.” commented Frank.

The Kitching family is no stranger to success in the Mule gimmer lamb show arena, regularly picking up tickets at Skipton, as well as Gargrave and Kilnsey Shows. They will be exhibiting again this year.

Frank, who has taken over the reins as Skipton branch chairman from Malhamdale’s Neil Heseltine, said: “The breed itself is doing very well. A record number of tags were bought last year, with increasing numbers of ewe lambs going to the annual sales across our breeding heartlands. People who keep Mules do not have a bad word to say about them.

“However, we must never rest on our laurels. The challenge all of us now face as NEMSA members and breeders is to keep on developing the breed and its reputation – to continually look to improve quality. We cannot stand still. We must always be looking to move forward, to promote and market the Mule at every opportunity.”

Like new NEMSA chairman Kevin Wilson, who farms at Blubberhouses, between Skipton and Harrogate, Frank also recognises that the Association itself must strive to move forward and keep pace with a changing world.

He stressed: “We need to gain the interest and involvement of more younger people and one way to do this is through more effective use of social media channels to connect with future generations of farmers and attract younger audiences. It certainly helped us in getting more people to come and look at our lambs.

“Social media is an extremely powerful tool and we must make more use of it to promote and market the Mule to breeders, vendors and buyers the length and breadth of the country – not only at sale time, but throughout the entire year. It is also an ideal way of building an online community. I have little doubt that social media will become more and more relevant to us all.”

The Kitchings also buy in and finish store cattle, while non-farming diversification has seen the provision of four holiday cottages at Grisedale Farm.