JK Smith and Sons

It’s sometimes easy to think that the Mule phenomenon only started in the last couple of decades, maybe 30 years since they started coming south in any great numbers, but the reality is that Mules in some form or another have been being produced for many years.

Dick Smith from Hill House Farm, Warwickshire, remembers going with his father to Carlisle in the mid fifties and buying Mules out of the old town centre mart and loading them onto the train and then walking them back to the farm, some seven miles away.

Since then the Mule has been transformed into the modern animal we now have, more than capable of rearing two or more lambs and unequalled for productivity and quality. And the numbers heading south year upon year bear strong testament to this.

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Dick Smith is still bringing the mules back to his corner or Warwickshire and they still are doing the business for him. Son Richard and daughter Lynne are mainly running the business at Hill House where Dick moved to when he got married in1968. The farm now extends to some 800 acres where they run 1700 ewes, mainly mules and 160 head of suckler cattle, bred to a Simmental bull. They went out of cereals a few years ago to concentrate on their livestock, making them unique in their area, which is largely arable. They are in the HLS, mainly due to good permanent pasture land and the existence of areas of ancient ridge and furrow farmland.

Richard spends his holidays “up north” buying lambs, looking to bring down up to 500 lambs a year, dependant on price and availability of the type of lambs they are looking for. “We can buy running lambs or tupping lambs depending on the price and work them into our system. This way we aren’t as dependent on the fashion of the day, and this helps maximise our profit in the long run,” he notes.

They have tried other breeds over the years, but have always returned to the Mule, mainly for its mothering ability and the fact they are low maintenance and very reliable. “The Mule ewe will kill itself looking after its lamb as opposed to other breeds we have tried which will kill their lambs to look after themselves,” Richard observes. The Mule also proves itself as a versatile breeder as it doesn’t seem to matter what breed of tup it is run with it always comes up with the goods.

Most of the Mules at Hill House are crossed with the Suffolk, with a few being crossed with Texel and Charollais rams. As well as producing a quality fat lamb, the cross bred gimmers are now growing in demand and over the last few years 500 Suffolk cross gimmers have been sold privately to the same buyer, adding value to the enterprise.

Fat lambs are sold from Hill House via deadweight, mainly down to a lack of good competitive markets in the area, which since FMD in 2001 has been predominantly arable. The lambs the mules produce are ideal for the deadweight market too, hitting the spec required time after time. Cast ewes are all sold through the live ring as the family feel it is important to maintain the auction mart system, not just for sales, but also the social side of the business as well. “We tend to work very individually nowadays,” Lynne says. “It’s important to be able to get to the markets and talk and meet other people.”

When looking for his Mules, Richard likes a solid well made lamb with good skins and prefers a lighter faced lamb as he finds they are better mothers. “We lamb everything outside in one field and after they lamb bring them in for a day or so to make sure all is going right. Some people might think we are mad for doing that, but it suits our system. The quieter the sheep are with their lambs the better for it is for us. The Mules are really good mothers, so this helps us,” he says.

One thing that also goes on is a good interaction with the general public. They have been selling Christmas trees for a number of years now and have built up a good relationship with non farmers, many of whom visit the farm when there other things of interest to see. “The more we can show the general public how farming works, the better we can work with them and they can understand how the countryside works,” enthuses Lynne.

One thing is for sure though, the closer we look at the British sheep industry the more we can see the benefits the North of England mule provides for the sheep industry as a whole – great mothering ability combined with milkiness of ewe to provide the ideal finished lamb. Many have tried to imitate over the years, but non bettered, and this has been borne out over the three generations from Hill House who have been buying them.