Marion Hope

Demand for the North of England Mule is stronger than ever, says Marion Hope, secretary of the breed association. She tells Neil Ryder about overseeing more than 1000 members, in excess of 100,000 ewes sold through association sales and her own farm in Dumfriesshire.

Times are positive, believes Marion Hope, secretary of the North of England Mule Sheep Association (NEMSA). “Demand for Mules is high, continuing to form the basis of lowland commercial sheep systems throughout much of the UK,” she says. “With leading buyers often being estates looking for hardy, prolific sheep which are easy to manage,” she adds.

Mrs Hope also welcomes the growth of North of England Mule classes at local, county and regional shows, including new class at the Royal Highland Show and Scottish Winter Fair, providing a valuable shop window for the ‘breed’.

In addition to being association secretary, Mrs Hope is very much hands on farming with husband David at Albierigg, Canonbie, Dumfriesshire. Their sons, Thomas, 11 and Harry, nine are also keen on showing the family’s sheep and competing in young handler classes.

Tenant farm Albierigg is a 250-hectare (620-acre) farm tenanted from the Buccleuch Estate and running from about 100m (320ft) to 215m (700ft) above sea level. It is a very wet farm classified as severely disadvantaged, with large areas of rocks and rush.

The family came to Albierigg five years ago from Hexham, where they farmed 120ha (300 acres) spread over five different blocks, the home unit being just 15ha (37 acres).

“We wanted a larger farm with all the land in one block, but there was nothing either to rent or buy around Hexham,” says Mr Hope. “We wanted a farm with similar land to our existing farm, as we were taking our existing stock, so Albierigg suited us very well. We aim to reseed about 20 to 30 acres annually and are able to make all the hay and silage we need.”

The farm carries 90 first-cross Limousin and British Blue cross Friesian suckler cows put to the Limousin bull. More than half are autumn calving and the rest spring.

Mr Hope says first-cross dairy-bred suckler dams help the herd keep ‘close to the milk’ and rear strong calves to be sold at 10-12 months through Carlisle and Longtown markets.

The sheep enterprise is based on 400 Northumberland (Hexham type) Blackface ewes, of which about 100 are bred pure as flock replacements and the rest put to Bluefaced Leicester tups for North of England Mule production.

In addition, 220 home-bred Mules are retained and put to the Suffolk for prime lamb production, and 50 Millennium Blue ewes (Beltex cross Blue du Maine) bred back to the Beltex to produce show lambs. The Bluefaced Leicester, Beltex and Blackie rams are all home-bred, meaning Suffolk tups are the only sheep bought in on a regular basis.

Polytunnels All ewes are pregnancy scanned and everything (except the Blackface bred pure) lambed in two large polytunnels. First to lamb at the end of February/beginning of March are the pedigree Leicesters and Beltex, the main lambing getting under way from March 28 with the Millennium Blues lambing very late, so the lambs are in top condition for the winter shows.

“Lambing inside is much easier for us than outdoor lambing,” says Mr Hope. “If we were lambing outside the sheep would be spread over the farm, making it very difficult to do daily checks. Also, it can be very wet here at lambing time.

“This year we have had an overall lambing percentage of 190 per cent ewes tupped, with the Mules at 200 per cent. It all works well with the sheep coming down from the hill for lambing, then going out on to the better land and back on to the hill in May when the lower land is closed to hay and silage.

“It also fits well as we have to take livestock off the top of the hill for six weeks of the year as part of a conservation agreement, but it does not matter when this is done. In practice the stock are usually off the land for seven weeks or more.

Livestock health “Being such a wet farm, livestock health is a major factor and we work closely with our vet, Charlie Foster of Border Vets in Longtown. Liver fluke and ticks are major problems.

“We also use boluses in both our cattle and adult sheep to deal with mineral deficiencies – copper, cobalt, selenium, and iodine. We also treat against orf and have a comprehensive vaccination programme.

“We used to creep feed our lambs, but with the benefits of reseeding there is just a little concentrate for late finishers. Our prime lambs are sold through Longtown market at about 42 to 43kg liveweight, but we sell our Mule ewe lambs through Hexham. Coming from the Hexham area there are many buyers who know our Mules so it makes sense to carry on selling there.

“The only sheep we buy in are our Suffolk tups and we are careful to quarantine them before they join our main flock.”

The mass of rosettes in the kitchen at Albierigg reflect the family’s success in the showring, including top Mule honours at Hexham in 2007 and 2008 and winter primestock show successes with their Beltex cross Millennium Blue butchers’ lambs.

The Beltex crosses, says Mr Hope, also have the advantage of being relatively calm and well suited to young handlers. Certainly a good proportion of the rosettes on show have been earned by Thomas and Harry, both in open classes and as young handlers.

With just five years at Albierigg, Mr and Mrs Hope believe they have the stock and systems which suit the farm. They are also starting to see the benefits from the changes they have made to the farm itself and from their reseeding and land improvement programme. It is now a case of building on these changes.

Demand Putting on her NEMSA hat, Mrs Hope says demand for the Mule and membership of the association has continued to grow.

“Most modern farms and estates are working with relatively little labour which means they are looking for easy care sheep systems,” she says. “They are also positively looking for the grey NEMSA eartag, which is a guarantee of the North of England Mule’s parentage with large numbers going south.

“Health wise, most of the NEMSA lambs forward for sales are from closed flocks, which in turn have their own health plans and policies. NEMSA advises all members to scab dip all lambs, the two previous years they were advised to vaccinate against bluetongue, and individual breeders’ lambs going through NEMSA sales are also checked by the association’s sale inspectors.

“Year after year, buyers of North of England Mules come back to the association sales and many buy lambs from the same vendors time and time again.”

“These lambs go on into the buyers’ own high health status flocks, which will have their own biosecurity protocols for newly introduced stock. Overall demand for the North of England Mules continues to grow and prices remain solid, all of which augurs well for the future of the breed.”