Nearly every year for the last 22 years Harold Keast has made a 330 mile pilgrimage from his home in Coldridge Barton, Devon. Not for a religious experience though, but to buy Mule gimmer lambs from “Up North”, mainly the NEMSA sales, taking back down around 750 gimmer lambs annually, both for himself and neighbours.
It was in 1987 when he first got some North of England Mules, when he took over some extra land and needed some more sheep and a local farmer sold him some. He was immediately hooked. “I have been farming for more than 60 years,” says Harold. “I can honestly say that I wouldn’t have anything other than a Mule ewe on the place now. They are the easiest sheep to work with, great mothers, plenty of milk, and when crossed with a Charollais tup, produce a great prime lamb.”
Harold bought Coldridge Barton in 1997 farming in partnership with his wife Anne and son David. He has lived all his life in the same Parish, farming nearby on another farm until they moved. The farm runs to 250 acres of owned land and a further 150 acres are rented in. A combination of spring and winter barley grown on the farm provides all the feed for the 80 head of beef sucklers and sheep, apart from a bit of sheep cake bought in prior to lambing.
Harold clearly enjoys travelling north for the autumn sales meeting up with friends, buyers and sellers, again and catching up with the latest news from the area, the social side is also an aspect of farming he looks forward too. “Coming up over the last 20 odd years we have made some great friends, and it’s always good to catch up, as well as buy the gimmers.”
Many of the lambs tend to come from farms which have done well in previous years, as he knows the system the lambs are in and whether they will suit his farm too, which is important. “Over the years the mules have improved in size and confirmation, without losing that unique mothering ability, which is great for producing fat lambs,” Harold says. He also finds that by going back to the same farms, he gets a consistent run of sheep too.
The ewes are run on an easy care system. Lambs receive a dose against Coccidiosis and the ewes get a worm/scab injection as they lamb, a worm drench at spaining and they also get a fluke dose in January. After three or four draws out of the fat lambs, the remainder are given an extra worm dose too. The system works with lambing starting at the beginning of March with the ewes and hoggs in April.
This year ewes and hoggs scanned at 218% and the main of the lambs are off the farm by mid to late July, with the first draw of lambs taken from the 1st of June. Harold aims to sell the fat lambs between 40-42kg. Last year, 2010, saw the average for all his lambs level out at £66, with his first draw coming in at £79.10, and this year, with an even firmer demand for lamb, saw his first draw cash in at £92, underlining the effectiveness of the mule ewe, producing two quick finishing lambs with minimum input and leaving top quality fat lambs.
And that’s why this autumn you will find Harold, once again, heading north to the annual Harvest of the Hills. The mule is the backbone of the UK sheep industry, and has been for many years, and with such a reputation, it is easy to see why even more people are turning once again to the original easy care sheep.