NEMSA Skipton branch chairman Frank Kitching explains how he hopes to attract the next generation of farmers to buy and work with NEMSA Mules, including how social media can help boost the profile of the industry.

Congratulations to Graham and Amy Jackson, of Bentham, Mule champions at the 2018 Great Yorkshire Show with their first prize single gimmer shearling, a product of the Lord family’s Hewgill flock.

The first prize single gimmer lamb and reserve champion came from NEMSA chairman Kevin Wilson and his son, James, and was by their Harland F1 Bighead tup.

Show Results
Pen of 2 Gimmer Lambs – 1 J K Wilson & Son, Blubberhouses, 2&3 S R Myers, York, 4 G E Jackson, Bentham.
Pen of 2 Shearling Gimmers – 1 and 2 Mr J H and Mrs J Wilson, Settle, 3 G E Jackson, 4 M & B Allen, Whitby.
Pen of 2 Shearlings – 1&3 D Buck, Barnard Castle, 2 M & B Allen.
Pen of 2 Ewes – 1 M&B Allen.
Single Mule Ewe – 1 Mr J H and Mrs J Wilson.
Single Gimmer Lamb – 1&4 J K Wilson & Son, 2 S R Myers, 3 G E Jackson.
Single Gimmer Shearling – 1&3 G E Jackson, 2&4 Mr J
H and Mrs J Wilson.
Show Judge – Ashley Caton, Otterburn

At just turned 30, Frank Kitching, recently elected chairman of the Skipton branch of the North of England Mule Sheep Association (NEMSA), is the youngest of its nine regional chairs – he beats new Hawes branch chairman Will Sedgley by seven years!

As ‘harvesters of the hills,’ both men share a long-held passion for the breed and clearly recognise the importance of future marketing and promotion, coupled with the need to encourage new, young blood to get involved with and actively participate in the work of the Association, with social media seen as an extremely powerful tool to this end.

The Kitchings in particular – brothers Richard and Charles, and their sons Frank, Jack and Thomas – are significantly increasing their Mule numbers from their picture-postcard base in the Yorkshire Dales at Grisedale Farm, Threshfield.

The family are custodians of a diverse and increasing spread of some 1,600 acres of land in total – a mix of hill and pasture. As well as their 400-acre holding in Threshfield, predominantly a hill farm, the Kitchings also run sheep on 450 acres of high fells above Buckden.

In addition, they farm land further down the valley towards Skipton, as well as in Cheshire,  and it is at these two locations where their lowland sheep are reared, though all are lambed back at home base for ease of management.

“We graze here, there and everywhere, but run our Mules on better grazing,” explained Frank. “We have always been a Swaledale sheep farm – we have around 1,400 ewes on the ground at the moment – but have now started to breed significantly more Mules from them, as we see this as the way forward.”

The ‘daddy’ of the breed is, of course, the Bluefaced Leicester ram and the family also runs a flock of some 30 sheep, breeding both its own tups and buying in others, mainly at Skipton and Hawes, to introduce fresh blood.

“However, we have no set rules here – there are plenty of good strains around locally,” said Frank, who described the past lambing time – the family lambs some 2,700 sheep in total across all breeds – as one of the most difficult on record, with an extremely harsh winter followed by a wet Spring. “It’s certainly been a hard time for sheep and they have done well to get through it all,” he noted.

The Kitchings currently have around 200 Mule ewes and, despite the unforgiving weather earlier this year, pretty much achieved their target of two lambs per ewe. Their ewe and wether lambs are sold through the local auction mart in Skipton, with 90% of the ewe lambs going under the hammer at the main September shows and sales, others later.

Some 150 gimmer lambs are also retained annually for breeding, as the Kitchings seek to at least quadruple their Mule holding to 800-plus over the next few years.

Frank explained: “While we have always bred Mules we have now taken on more land that will suit the breed. We have had all sorts of sheep over the years, including Continental-crosses, but none that can perform anywhere near as well as Mules. They tick all the right boxes and are now set to be the main part of our flock.

“They are easy to lamb, raise plenty of them, produce a lot of milk and look after their offspring well. Their hardiness is a strong point too – the Mule ewe is without doubt a good, long lasting and very versatile sheep.”

On the subject of breeding patterns, Frank said: “We have a strict policy on what we sell and what we keep. Genetics are important. The breed is a cross that works extremely well. The Mule ewe is an exceptional and prolific breeder. In addition, the Bluefaced Leicester ram is improving all the time to meet the modern traits you need in a tup to produce fantastic lambs.”

The Kitchings are long-established NEMSA members, though Frank’s appointment as Skipton branch chairman is a first for the family. He noted: “I joined the committee initially and have thoroughly enjoyed the experience, along with attending shows, meeting different people and learning from fellow Mule breeders.”

This year, Frank also hopes to attend some of the more high profile shows down country on behalf of NEMSA to further promote the breed and its attributes to a much wider audience of both current and potential breeders.

He is also looking forward to NEMSA’s 2018 show and sale season this autumn “We rely on hill farms to produce the Mule. We are the harvesters of the hills. We are taking a product to market and we obviously want it to do well.” commented Frank.

The Kitching family is no stranger to success in the Mule gimmer lamb show arena, regularly picking up tickets at Skipton, as well as Gargrave and Kilnsey Shows. They will be exhibiting again this year.

Frank, who has taken over the reins as Skipton branch chairman from Malhamdale’s Neil Heseltine, said: “The breed itself is doing very well. A record number of tags were bought last year, with increasing numbers of ewe lambs going to the annual sales across our breeding heartlands. People who keep Mules do not have a bad word to say about them.

“However, we must never rest on our laurels. The challenge all of us now face as NEMSA members and breeders is to keep on developing the breed and its reputation – to continually look to improve quality. We cannot stand still. We must always be looking to move forward, to promote and market the Mule at every opportunity.”

Like new NEMSA chairman Kevin Wilson, who farms at Blubberhouses, between Skipton and Harrogate, Frank also recognises that the Association itself must strive to move forward and keep pace with a changing world.

He stressed: “We need to gain the interest and involvement of more younger people and one way to do this is through more effective use of social media channels to connect with future generations of farmers and attract younger audiences. It certainly helped us in getting more people to come and look at our lambs.

“Social media is an extremely powerful tool and we must make more use of it to promote and market the Mule to breeders, vendors and buyers the length and breadth of the country – not only at sale time, but throughout the entire year. It is also an ideal way of building an online community. I have little doubt that social media will become more and more relevant to us all.”

The Kitchings also buy in and finish store cattle, while non-farming diversification has seen the provision of four holiday cottages at Grisedale Farm.

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.

NEMSA secretary Marion Hope was recently the subject of a feature in The Northern Farmer magazine. Read the full feature here or by clicking on it below.

The 2018 edition of the Association’s Mule News is now available to download below. To request a hard copy please contact the Association secretary, Marion Hope.

New North of England Mule Sheep Association (NEMSA) chairman Kevin Wilson has begun his two-year term of office with a clarion call to farming’s future generations.

“We need to get more young people interested in and involved with the Association. Our future success depends on it,” said the North Yorkshire upland sheep and cattle farmer, who is based at Hewness House Farm in Blubberhouses.

“Moving forward we are exploring a number of avenues to build on the many past achievements to both maintain and raise the Association’s profile and that of the breed in general, with enhanced marketing and promotion key to our long-term aims and objectives, particulary through enhanced use of recognised social media channels,” commented Mr Wilson.

NEMSA chairman Kevin Wilson looks over some of this year’s crop of Mule lambs on their Swaledale dams.

He said the Association would also be looking to more effectively publicise its main autumn gimmer lamb shows and sales staged at auction marts across the North of England.

Mr Wilson noted: “These high profile sales continue to prove extremely popular. Not only do they cater for our own membership, but they also continue to attract North of England Mule aficianados and buyers from the length and breadth of the UK, both from our northern heartlands and much further afield.

“Among then are long distance travellers,  including regular visitors from the south-west of the country, notably Devon and Cornwall, as well as East Anglia, the Midlands, Wales and beyond. We look forward to welcoming them all back to our Association sales this autumn.”

Mr Wilson added: “I am both delighted and proud to have taken over at the helm of a strong, financially sound and forward-looking NEMSA. We have a growing membership covering all areas from the English/Scottish Border down to Derbyshire and it shouldn’t be too long before we are welcoming our milestone 1000th member on board.”

The roots of the Wilson farming family stretch back across many generations to 1783. Mr Wilson started farming in his own right in 1983 – his wife Daphne is also an integral part of the business – and they have since been joined in partnership with their son, James. Together, the family farms three separate packets of upland between Skipton and Harrogate.

Mules are their main stock-in-trade. They breed their own Bluefaced Leicester tups, also buying in ram lambs at society sales to introduce new bloodlines, while selling all their gimmer lambs at CCM Skipton, where Mr Wilson remains a director.

At Skipton’s second NEMSA highlight last year, the Wilsons were proud to win both show classes for pens of ten and 20 for the first time.The majority were sired by their highly regarded Harland F1 Bighead tup, shared in partnership with his Richmondshire breeder Alan Busby, of Marrick.

The ram has been used successfully for three breeding seasons and now has his fourth crop of lambs on the ground. Bighead has since been joined by his home-bred shearling son, Junior. Both were among the prizes at last year’s Great Yorkshire Show.

Mr Wilson – the family also runs a Limousin-x-British Blue suckler herd – has been involved with NEMSA for many years, the last two as vice-chairman. He has served on the main NEMSA committee for the past decade and is a former chairman of the Skipton Branch. He is also a former chairman of Nidderdale Agricultural Society, continuing to serve on the show committee, as well as the sheep committee of Otley Show.

Mr Wilson said the current lambing season had been an extremely difficult one for sheep farmers countrywide. “In fact, it’s been the worst lambing time I have ever known, with a long, hard winter and the so-called ‘beast from the east’ prior to lambing really knocking the condition of sheep. We have all suffered from the elements and, as a direct result, I think we will see less lambs on the ground this year,” he said.

NEMSA remains in fine heart, with a growing membership fast approaching four figures and a solid financial footing, members heard at a well-attended 34th annual general meeting in Settle.

The meeting was also told that the breed, too,remains as strong as ever, with the main high profile members-only ewe lamb sales held at auction marts across the north of England throughout September and October each year achieving total sales of some 246,000 head in 2017, the highest for some time.

The annual meeting unanimously re-elected Randal Raine, of Renwick, Penrith, as president for his third year in office, while his nephew James Raine, of nearby Kirkoswald, after completing his two-year term as chairman, handed over the reins to the vice-chairman, North Yorkshire’s Kevin Wilson, of Hewness House Farm, Blubberhouses, between Skipton and Harrogate, who was also elected unanimously.

The outgoing chairman thanked all concerned for their support and wished his successor every possible success. “Efforts to further promote the North of England Mule have been commendable. Lamb sales figures were up last year and trade was better than we might have expected. We must continue to collectively market and promote the breed wherever possible – and showcase just what our commercial ewe is capable of,” stressed Mr Raine.

Mr Wilson said he was looking forward to building on the success of both the association and the Mule breed in general and he agreed with his predecessor that marketing and promotion should be high on his list of priorities. “It is vitally important we get more young people involved. Social media is a powerful tool, particularly among younger generations,  and we must seek to maximise its full potential,” he said.

Other officers elected included Cumbrian sheep farmer Chris Harrison, of Alston,as new-vice chairman, with Mule breeder Jeff Burrow, of Kendal, re-elected treasurer.

Officials also paid tribute to the ongoing support and generosity of NEMSA’s two main long-term sponsors, Shearwell Data and Animax, which has been supporting the association for more than 30 years. Animax’s GB sales manager Jim Adair and North of England representative Tom Rayner handed over a cheque for £2500.

The meeting, held at North Ribblesdale Rugby Club, welcomed another member of the Raine family, the president’s cousin David Raine, of Old Parks, Kirkoswald, as guest speaker. The upland sheep farmer and NFU Cumbria county chairman is a true champion and informed spokesperson on behalf of the UK sheep sector.

He gave an in-depth review of the history and development of the UK sheep industry, notably its present-day influence in European markets, which now account for 40% of the UK’s trade.

The lambing season offers an ideal window to carry out routine management practices that improve animal health for the year ahead and farmers should take this opportunity to supply the necessary trace elements to their flocks, advises NEMSA sponsor Animax.

“No farmer wants to go into the Spring with sheep losing weight and having a weakened immune system,” said Elizabeth Berry, Animax vet director. “I cannot stress enough the need to address the flock’s trace element needs and to ensure that they are provided.

“I want to emphasise the vital importance of trace elements for animal performance – an area sometimes overlooked, particularly at busy times of the year. Trace elements are essential for cell metabolism and many other body functions, including energy production, growth, reproduction and the nervous system – so have a major impact on animal performance.

“Consider your options – the most effective and labour saving product is a leaching bolus – which offers up to six months supplementation. This is particularly useful when sheep are grazed on fells, or away from the farm or adequate handling facilities. It provides a slow release, consistent supply of trace elements and is the optimal size to ensure retention. This gives you peace of mind that the product is doing its job – it eliminates uncertainty.

“Also, by balancing the diet correctly, you maximise the benefits of home grown forages or grass and so the efficiency of your nutrition is increased. It reduces the cost of concentrates, or supplementary feeds, by ensuring that forage or grass is used much more effectively.

“By using a leaching bolus pre-lambing, the ewe is prepared for the demands of lambing and in better condition for milk supply. The benefits are passed from ewe to lamb so you will be giving the lambs the best start you can – which will be evident in their growth rates and vigour.

“One major advantage of a leaching bolus is that the rate of release is regulated only by the rate of water infiltration and so does not vary between different animals. This is important as farmers aim to produce consistent animals and the leaching technology is a tool which helps to deliver uniform stock.

“With the modern demands of sheep farming, we need to focus on ways to work smarter and embrace labour-saving technology that provides best practice for our flocks. Products that offer effective, labour saving benefits and support animal performance should be adopted within farm management plans,” added Dr Berry.

Suffolk based NEMSA Sponsor Animax has been voted the Trade Supplier of the Year, for the UK animal health industry at an awards event in London.

Animax specialises in the research, development and manufacture of effective animal health products and is the market leader in trace element supplementation for livestock. They are best known for their range of leaching boluses which are sold internationally and marketed in the UK under the Tracesure® brand.

This prestigious award, one of the top business awards in the industry, is part of the National SQP Awards, organised by Over the Counter magazine in conjunction with AMTRA and AHDA. (SQP’s, or Suitably Qualified Person’s are able to prescribe veterinary medicines).

Animax was voted for by readers of Over The Counter magazine, including animal health shop staff and SQP’s who work in merchants shops, vet practices, equine shops, pet shops and pet superstores from right across the UK. Animax was voted the winner for ‘’demonstrating how they live and breathe the trade, for marketing products with enthusiasm and for having excellent product knowledge, providing the necessary support through buyers and SQPs in order to advise and inform farmers.’’

The company saw off formidable competition from the other shortlisted and much larger companies – Bimeda, Ceva Animal Health, Elanco, Merial Animal Health, Norbrook, Trilanco and Zoetis.

Marketing director Carolyn Holland commented: ‘‘We are absolutely thrilled to have been given this award. SQP’s and the many people who work in animal heath do such an important and difficult job, providing expert and technical advice to farmers and having to know about a huge range of conditions and products. Our team try to give the right support and we are always reviewing what is needed.’’

Carolyn continued: “We are so impressed by the standard and the knowledge the SQP’s have. This year we were delighted to sponsor the Newly Qualified SQP of the Year. This important award was won by Megan Thomas from Carrs Billington, Settle, North Yorkshire. Her application was really outstanding. Samantha Mitchell from Mole Valley Farmers, Holsworthy, Devon, was the well-deserved runner up. We wish them both all the very best for the future.’’