Mule sheep breeders, like their stock-in-trade, are hardy types. Many have little choice, as custodians of some of the highest and most remote hill and upland farms in the north, ideally suited to the resilient breed.
One such family is long-standing North of England Mule Sheep Association – NEMSA – members, the Walkers, who farm 6000 acres of predominantly fells in a picture-postcard setting high above Dunsop Bridge in Lancashire’s Forest of Bowland.
In fact, the three mile single track road ends at the Walkers’ Higher Brennand Farm, which stands at the head of the Dunsop Valley and is famous in its own right, as the land incorporates Whitendale Hanging Stones, officially recognised on Ordnance Survey maps as the very centre of Great Britain.
Central to the family-run business are husband and wife, Geoff and Margaret Walker, and their two sons, 34-year-old John and Rob, aged 24. They are the second and third generations to farm the water board-owned land, which was first taken over by Geoff’s late father, Jack and his wife, Sylvia, in 1970.
And, there’s already a fourth Walker generation on the ground in John and his wife Sarah baby son, William, with a second child due later this year – slap bang in the middle of the high profile annual Mule gimmer lamb show and sale season.
The Walker holding is a true hill farm, running from 600ft up to 1600ft and farmed in two separate pockets of 3,000 acres – one Higher and Lower Brennand Farms, the other, Whitendale Farm, a mile away and acquired some 17 years ago to allow the operation to expand and develop.
It has done just that, even though a mere 30 acres of the 6000 is mowable – all to be shared by the Mule sheep, which the Walker family has been breeding for around 40 years after originally starting with Suffolks.
Geoff Walker, who was born and bred in the Yorkshire Dales village of Hebden, recalls: “It was over 40 years ago when dad bought his first Bluefaced Leicester ram. We have 15 pure Leicester ewes now, both breeding our own and purchasing others. We try to buy one new tup every year to introduce new bloodlines.”
The main flock is Swaledale ewes, some 1,300 between the two farms, with around 400 crossed with the Leicesters to produce Mule lambs, the remainder pure-bred Swaledales by both home-bred and other tups purchased out of Hawes and Kirkby Stephen.
Swale ewes are gathered in from the fells and lamb from towards the end of March until around the first week in May. The flock produces an annual yield of between 300 to 350 Mule ewe lambs, which are aimed towards the annual NEMSA showcases in September, while grass-finished wethers are mostly sold deadweight.
And while the Walkers readily admit that their gimmer lambs may not be the biggest and best around – this can be put down to their breeding environment – they have nevertheless excelled on the local show circuit, winning NEMSA championships with pens of ten at both Clitheroe and Skipton, where the family sells around three-quarters of its annual ewe lamb crop.
In fact, they have been among the NEMSA prizes at Skipton for the past decade, also sending out the home-bred Mule wether lamb champion for the past two years at the annual chairity show and sale staged on behalf of Addingham & District Sheep Breeders’ Association, at which big-hearted farmers across the region regularly donate lambs, predominantly Mules, for auction. Other successes have been recorded at both Penrith and Kilnsey Shows.
Maintaining a strict and detailed record book is key to the operation. “Every single sheep we have ever sold goes into the diary – when, where and to who. It’s like a bible to us,” said Geoff.
Walker Mule breeding patterns are tried and trusted. “All our sheep are drawn at the back end and put to older tups we think will suit. In addition, all our ram lambs are tried, so we can fall back to them as shearlings the following year if required,” explained Geoff.
And what about the many attributes of the Mule? Geoff said: “They are renowned for their ability to thrive in the harshest of climates – and they need to be when considering that we get around 100 inches of rainfall per year up here. In fact, the past winter has proved to be a particularly hard one for most hill farmers. Sheep have suffered and we have all been faced with higher feed costs.
“Swaledale ewes lambing to the Mule are superb all-rounders – good to breed from and easy and productive to lamb. We have around a 170% return on our lambs to ewes ratio. It’s quite enough for us.
“There is little doubt that Mule gimmer lambs are becoming more popular, with both regular and new buyers from all parts of the country attending the big NEMSA sales each Autumn. For us and other breeders, they also represent a good cash crop in September, when farms need additional revenue.”
Looking to the future, Geoff added: “We want to keep improving the maternal characteristics of our pedigree Swaledale females, coupled with robust culling policies which can only improve the quality of our Mules.”
The family have been members and stalwarts of NEMSA for many years, with Jack Walker originally joining the Skipton branch, followed by Geoff, who served on the Skipton committee, having only recently been replaced by son Rob. They again say they are looking forward to this year’s NEMSA autumn highlights.
The Walkers also run the highly successful award-winning Brennand British Blue cattle herd, comprising some 45 cows– seven pedigrees, the remainder Blue-cross and Limousin-cross.
Geoff Walker admitted to being “as proud as I have ever been” in February this year when the family secured multiple prize wins at CCM Skipton’s annual Craven Champions store cattle with show potential highlight, chief among them both supreme and reserve supreme honours with a brace of heifers by their renowned stock bull, Cromwell Fendt.
The supreme champion secured an unprecedented seventh Craven Champions’ title for the Walkers and, fittingly, received the Jack Walker Trophy, first presented by Geoff in 2014 in memory of his late father.