Wayne Hutchinson, of Farm Images, visits the Woods of Kinnerton – and quickly discovers why the North of England Mule is a sheep they can both trust and rely on to do the job required.
Nestled in the beautiful, rolling Shropshire Hills AONB, right on the Welsh borders, lies a major family farming operation. Well hidden and low key, it’s not really visible from the roads and it’s not until you get talking to Phil, the elder brother behind this business, that you begin to get an idea of its scale.
The Wood family moved to Kinnerton Farm some 57 years ago when they took on 144 acres. This has increased over the years and they now run around 2700 acres, shared between taken land and what they own.
They lamb around 4200 ewes, finish some 10,000 lambs and if that wasn’t enough they run a beef herd of 450 breeding cattle, some run pure Limousin, the rest a combination of Limousin and British Blue cross.
The farm is run in partnership by Phil, who lives at Kinnerton Hall, his brother Michael, who lives at nearby Brookshill Farm, and their mother. Phil’s wife, Sue, sons Martin and Simon, and Michael’s son, Tom, all work in the business too. It really is a full on family business, with everyone helping out in all jobs at all times.
The home farm lies at around 1000 feet and runs up to 1700 foot at its highest, and they take land to feed the fattening lambs on 25-30 miles away. Lambing is undertaken outside at the end of March and for this they need to use ewes that they can trust and rely on to do the job – and this is where the North of England Mule comes into its own.
They used to buy Welsh Mules as they were they handiest to source, being so near to the Welsh border, but found that they didn’t match up to the North of England counterparts. Once they had tried the North of England Mule there was no going back for them, as they find them hardier and last better.
“We can catch a good amount of snow where we are and need our ewes to be able to live and thrive outside in all conditions, which the North of England Mule excels at,” claims Phil, “as well as being great mothers to the lambs, milking well and taking their lambs from the off. The less we have to do the better and the North of England Mule fits that bill perfectly,” he adds.
When they bring in sheep they look for sheep with good skins, good frame and good on their feet, selecting the best sheep they can. They return regularly to the same flocks year after year, partly for flock health reasons and also consistency of stock, buying around 350-380 shearlings a year out of Carlisle and Lazonby, although they have bought up to 900 yearlings some years!
They like to buy their shearlings from “Up North” as they find they are a better type of sheep to suit their farm than those which come down south as gimmer hoggs, having that extra year in which to grow and fill out in a tougher environment, which is needed at Kinnerton.
They run the Mules with Beltex and Beltex X tups to produce good fat lambs that have shape and also grow well. They run some of the Mules with the Suffolk tup and retain the best females from this cross for breeding from, as they still feel that this cross is as good as you can get, producing a quick growing, strong, easy fleshing lamb ideal for the finishing market, and that the females when crossed with the Texel again produce that great fat lamb.
Breeding their own replacements keeps down the cost of bringing more females into the farm, and the Suffolk cross females retain that milkiness and mothering from the Mule ewe to help keep the management to a minimum.
Fat lambs are sold through Shrewsbury, Welshpool and Bishops Castle markets. They find that the lambs out of the North of England Mules sell well as they have that bit of extra length and weight, as well as tight skins, ideal for hitting spec for which the markets demand.
The farm was in an ESA for 20 years and the sheep ground receives no artificial fertiliser, which the North of England Mule thrives on this type of ground, they find, as they have that extra hardiness built into their genetics and are able to convert the grass better, only being one generation removed from the Swaledale ewes, which graze some of the harshest grazing in the country in the northern hills.
Not all sheep would suit this hard ground as well, as Kinnerton Hall isn’t an easy farm at all, and it is fitting that the North of England Mule should thrive here as the land certainly mirrors where they originate from.