The North of England Mule has played an integral part of a North East farming business for the best part of seven decades.
“In 66 years, they have never let us down,” says Joe Vickers, who over the years has bought many thousands of Mule gimmer lambs for the family farming business and for sheep producers in the south west of England.
While he has scaled back his farming operation in recent years at Rennington South, near Alnwick in Northumberland, he still buys North of England Mule gimmer lambs and sells them the following year with lambs at foot or as shearlings or running lambs.
FS Vickers and Son was started by Joe’s late father Frank and Joe has carried on the family tradition started by Frank in 1951 two years after he took on Waterside House, Alnwick, when he bought his first Mule gimmer lambs and sold them the following year at Tow Law auction mart.
“I have tried other commercial ewes over several seasons but they were not as prolific or as easy to work with so I have stuck to the Mule,” said Joe. “I think the Mule has come into her own this year, withstanding everything that the weather has thrown at her,” he added.
The ongoing commercial viability of the Mule ewe is reflected in prices recorded for the farming business going back 60 years. Frank bought 353 gimmer lambs at Tow Law for £7 5shillings (£7.25) apiece and sold them at the mart as gimmers in 1958 at £12 10shillings and 6d (£12.52) a head.
Even in the year of the foot and mouth outbreak in the summer of 1966 they still made a profit, selling for £9 a head, having cost £6 18shillings (£6.) in 1965.
The Vickers family originated at Thornley Hall, Tow Law, and the breeding of Mules was the tradition from the Swaledales bred further up the valley.
Joe went into partnership with his father Frank when they took on Rennington South in 1964. “Every year we would buy 500 Mule ewe hoggs at Tow Law and sell two thirds of them in the spring with lambs at foot and the rest in the back end as gimmers,” said Joe. “We never missed a year, except it was difficult in 2001.
“When Tow Law closed we continued to buy at the Tow Law and Bellingham sales in September conducted by Hexham Mart, the only change being we started buying Hexham type lambs out of the Northumberland Blackface in the 1990s instead of the Swaledale crosses we bought previously. We also buy privately.”
Until 10 years ago, Joe had been farming 250 arable acres on the farm tenanted from the Duke of Northumberland, but he gave that up to concentrate on the sheep and beef enterprises, the latter involving buying in 100 yearling steers to finish.
Now he rents 100 acres of grassland at home, plus 100 acres on a neighbouring farm and 400 acres of winter keep.
In September 2017 he bought 500 Mule gimmer lambs to average £108 a head. Of those 225 were tupped with home-bred Suffolk rams and they were scanned for the first time to show a 151% lambing. Of those run with the tup, only 22 were geld and there were 125 sets of twins and eight triplets.
The Mules are lambed in buildings on a neighbouring farm and turned out the next day.
The hoggs are sold with single lambs at foot in May and for the last 10 years 150 lambs are taken off the ewes. This May through Hexham Mart 63 hoggs with single lambs averaged £204.
The 342 gimmers which were left last year sold in September to average £154 to a top price of £195 a head
Joe said: “The lambs are very prolific – it’s almost a problem! They are very easy to lamb, which is important as there’s only myself and retired shepherd John Holmes. We had only one lambing this year when the vet came out, one last year and none the year before. They are also great mothers and very milky.”
As with the commercial ewes, Joe has tried numerous breeds of terminal sire, but now sticks with home-bred Suffolks from his flock of 30 pure bred ewes, which also produces tup lambs for sale privately to regular buyers.
“We can get the lambs to heavier weights. I also keep Suffolk cross Mule gimmer lambs and sell them every year as shearlings. Last year I sold 60 privately and some at Acklington Mart to average £150 a head, which is a bonus for the income for the main flock of Mules,” said Joe.
The Mule cross Suffolk wether lambs are sold at 50-60kg liveweight in December through Acklington Mart and last year they averaged more than £90 a head. This year there will be around 200 to sell.
As well as the sales run by Hexham Mart, Joe and his brother Harry buy 2,500 lambs at Lazonby mart and privately on behalf of regular customers in the South West.
While Joe has had great faith in the Mule over his lifetime he has some concerns about some of the Bluefaced Leicester rams being bred today, criticising them on conformation, flat ears and black wool. And with the Swaledale breeders, he takes issue with those who leave the tails long on their gimmer lambs.
He also believes a challenge to the Mule could be the trend among younger sheep producers to take into account breeding and production figures when considering the commercial ewes they use.
A social and challenging spin-off from his association with the Mule has been judging the sheep at events across the country, including the Great Yorkshire Show three years ago and at the Royal Highland Show last year, where entries have increased hugely since the classes were introduced only seven years ago.
“There’s no bonnier sight than a pen of nicely marked Mule lambs going through the ring,” he says.