NEMSA member Julie Brough, who farms in Cumbria and is among the exhibitors in our show classes at this year’s Royal Highland Show, was visited by Maureen Hodges, Farming and Rural Affairs Editor with Newsquest Cumbria. It’s a great article and we warmly thank both Maureen and Newsquest for giving us permission to reproduce it here.
I park my car in the farmyard I’m greeted by clucking, rust-coloured hens and two fawning sheepdogs, who follow me to the door of the19th Century stone farmhouse.
Beckoning me into the kitchen, Julie Brough’s mum Ann tells me Julie has just popped out for a few minutes. She doesn’t know where, but she’s probably with the sheep. “I’m sure she won’t be long,” says Ann, who motions me to sit in a comfy armchair by the kitchen stove as she finishes sweeping up bits of hay from the stone floor. While she makes a pot of tea, Ann tells me she is now in charge of the house and garden because of a stroke some years previously, and how Julie is doing a “grand job” of running the farm.
Just then a young woman bursts in through the kitchen door, shrugs out of a pair of dirt-stained waterproof trousers, and shakes my hand. “You know I thought it was tomorrow you were coming. No worries, today’s better, but I might have to leave you at some point as I have a sheep that looks like she might need a hand to lamb.”
Life at Clappers Farm, near Langrigg, Wigton, set in rolling scenery stretching for miles to the Solway Coast, is one of old-fashioned values, hard graft and plenty of love, but Julie wouldn’t have it any other way.
Life is rarely dull. If 37-year-old Julie’s not looking after her beloved ewes and hoggs, beef cattle, and two farms, she’s dashing to the auction mart, or ferrying her two young children, Henry, three, and 14 month-old Elsie to playgroup or to the childminder. But Julie brushes off her role as anything special. She is, she insists, just an “ordinary mam”, who happens to farm.
Julie’s sheep of choice is the resilient North of England Mule. “It is a great sheep, easy to look after and always gets you out of trouble by doing the best they can,” she says. And, if there is a problem, Julie just rolls up her sleeves and pulls out the lambs.
“We had one sheep who gave birth to a massive lamb. It lambed on when any other sheep breed would not have done. Someone joked Mules could lamb sideways,” laughed the self-confessed Mule-obsessed farmer.
“Don’t ask me why, I just love them. I have grown up with them, but I don’t know why we have so many of them. We know we have a great sheep that has both the mothering ability and the milkiness.”
A Mule sheep has a mottled brown/black face. It has tight wool, a good set of ears and a good shape. “I just love its face, it’s the bonniest of all the commercial sheep breeds,” muses Julie, as mum Ann laughs.
How did Julie find herself farming? “I don’t know. It was a bit of an accident. I was always helping dad and have always loved being outside. I was in the sixth form at Wigton and it was in the October half-term; I was helping dad snagging turnips, when he said, ‘we could do with you here all the time’, and that was it. I didn’t go back to school. I did a lot of milking elsewhere and in between I was here for the bulk of the jobs. That was 20 years ago.”
Julie farms with the help of partner, Ross McNay, an accountant, and dad, John, who is 74. They run 480 north of England mules and a few Suffolk crosses, as well as 80 suckler cows on around 300 acres of land in total at Clappers Farm and the nearby Manshall Hall Farm. “We have around 210 head of cattle that includes followers and bulls too.”
“John should be here,” says Ann. “He’d love the crack.” “Oh he’ll be back soon, he’s taken the tractor,” said Julie, who went on to explain: “Dad bought a little tractor to help move the sheep and lambs. He’ll take one sheep and be gone for an hour or so. But we know he’s met someone on the way and stopped for a natter,” said Julie.
“There’s a lot of mam in me; I do not sit still either,” says Julie. “Dad is a bit more laid-back. I like it to be right, but that puts pressure on me.”
Just then, Julie stands up. “Excuse me, I’ll just go and look out of the window at the front of the house. A sheep might be lambing.”
Julie gets up every day at 6am and sets off to feed the sheep spread out on various bits of land, while Ross sees to Henry and Elsie. “I have to get outside and get my jobs done; I have to get a headstart.”
When not at the playgroup or at the childminder, Henry sometimes accompanies Julie on her daily chores, while Elsie plays in her playpen watched over by grandma Ann.
It’s nearly dinnertime and right on cue dad, John, who describes himself as a ‘bit of a character’, appears in the kitchen.
He proudly explains how he has farmed at Clappers like his dad and his grandad before him. “Julie is fourth generation, you know,” he says.
Julie explains: “Dad sees to the last feed and likes to check the stock. He rang me one night at 12.45am and said a sheep needed help lambing. In 10 minutes it was caught and sorted.”
“We don’t need to sit up with them,” adds John. “That is how we can have so many sheep to lamb.”
The family sell their fat lambs in June at Borderway Mart in Carlisle and Mitchell’s at Cockermouth, with cattle mainly going to Carlisle.
“The Suffolks are normally kept until 45 to 55 kilos. We handle them and if they fit they go away,” says Julie. Lambing starts in the middle of February for the Suffolks and continues with the mules. “We buy hoggs, lamb them as two-shears. We always buy 150 gimmer lambs,” adds Julie.
John feeds the cows at 7am every day. “We put silage in front of them all the time; we keep it simple,” she continues. “We don’t have a lambing shed and have just started scanning the sheep this time and have had singles, twins and triplets, the triplets are kept on creep.”
Julie’s favourite sale is Lazonby ‘Alston Moor’ and has been asked to judge there in the past as well as other mart sales, including Hawes, Skipton, Carlisle, Cockermouth and Middleton-in-Teesdale. In addition, she won at the Royal Highland Show with a hogg and lamb and took a third at the Borderway Agri -Expo in Carlisle last year.
“The first time I judged a show I was nervous, but you learn as you go along. I look at a sheep’s colouring and stretch and bone and I ask myself, ‘would I buy that sheep?’. Judging is an honour.”
She adds: “You don’t have to be a boy to farm; women are more than capable of doing it.”
Just as I reluctantly get up to go, Julie informs me she is also preparing for her wedding day in October. “It’s Alston Moor sale at Lazonby on the Wednesday. If I am getting titivated up for my wedding on the Friday, I haven’t planned it very well, but I’m not missing the sale.
“Elsie will be a flower girl and Harry a kilted pageboy as Ross is Scottish. I’m having a hen party at Cockermouth Show and my friends have organised another on a farm in North Yorkshire.”