The Scottish-based Pickard arable, vegetable, cattle and sheep farming family – and dyed-in-the-wool users of the North of England Mule – say they are once more looking forward to the journey south of the border to source their annual consignment of Mule gimmer lambs this autumn.
Dan Pickard and his wife, Caroline, will again be travelling down to Skipton Auction Mart in North Yorkshire, on Tuesday, September 10, for the high profile opening Mule ewe lamb show and sale in behalf of members of the North of England Mule Sheep Association (NEMSA), long time custodians of the breed.
For Dan in particular, it’s a trip down memory lane and an opportunity to meet again and buy lambs from some old friends, among them his mentors, the Caton family from Weston, near Otley. It was with them that Dan first cut his teeth in farming as a fresh-faced 13-year-old.
It was also where he first became acquainted with the North of England Mule – washing their faces, dipping, sorting and helping to prepare them for sale.
The Pickard family home is now in Fife – and has been since 1992 when Dan’s parents, Wharfedale cattle and sheep farmers, Duncan and Barbara Pickard, upped sticks from Denton, Ilkley, and moved lock, stock and barrel to Straiton Farm in Balmullo.
The couple first met while undertaking the same PhD degree research in Animal Physiology at Nottingham University. Both qualified as doctors and, as well as their farming background, have led full and active lives.
Among many outside interests, Duncan is a former university lecturer and published author, while Barbara is renowned for her extensive garden at Straiton, a member of the Scottish Garden Scheme, which welcomes paying visitors at certain times of the year in aid of charity.
She also lectured and spoke in the 1980s in defence of saturated fat. The ‘less saturated fat is good for you’ lobby has no place in Barbara’s book! In fact, it’s a philosophy shared by the Pickard family in general.
The family continues to trade in partnership as DW&BM Pickard, and while Dan and his own family are now running the lion’s share of the operation, both mum and dad – who have four children and 12 grandchildren– continue to play a hands-on role, though Duncan, now 75 and stlll looking after the farm sheep records, admits he is taking things a lot easier these days.
Not so dairy farmer’s daughter Barbara. She continues to mastermind the cattle operation, which is now centred around a thriving Aberdeen-Angus-x-Friesian suckler herd, put to both Angus and Stabiliser sires. This year, 152 cattle were successfully calved. The beef all goes to ABP in Perth.
With an average of 26 inches of rain per year, among the lowest in Scotland, the mostly grade three land is suitable for mixed farming. The farm, like many others in the area, grows wheat (for the Scottish whisky industry), spring barley (for Scottish lager brewing), spring oats (for Scotch porridge), along with carrots and swede, which are processed locally for British supermarkets – as well as beef and sheep.
Dan, 46, was just 20 when the family moved to Scotland, where he was to meet his future wife Caroline, who also comes from a farming background and helps in the office and on the farm, particularly at lambing time. Further support at this time comes from the couple’s three children – 14-year-old Jen, Bruce, 12, and Neil, eight.
Straiton also employs two full-time farm workers – Ron and Ross– who have both been with the Pickards for a decade.
Straiton Farm stands in the middle of a triangle between Cupar, St Andrews – the world-famous Old Course is no more than a few decent drives away – and Dundee. It is sandwiched between the Firth of Forth and the Tay Estuary some seven miles distant from the Scottish coast, 30ft above sea level at its lowest point, 370ft at the highest.
When the family first arrived at Straiton it came with some 600 acres. With further land both bought and rented it has now virtually doubled in size to 1,100acres. The farm also comprises mixed deciduous and conifer woodland, covering about 10% of total area, plus its own Cruivie castle ruin – it dates back to 1400
In their first year at Straiton and for that one year only as they proved unsuitable for the family’s needs, the couple tried Scottish Blackface sheep. They then started buying English Mules. In the mid-1990s, they were annually buying in over 600 gimmer lambs from both Hawes and Skipton to sell with lambs at foot the following year.
In 2001 they were unable to buy sheep from England and had to buy Scotch Mules. These proved to be inferior to the North of England Mules, which have been the breed of choice ever since. After 2002, when more grazing land became available to rent, they were able to develop a permanent flock. Since then they have sourced gimmer lambs only from Skipton.
Today, there is a flock of about 1600 ewes and lambs and Dan and Caroline will soon be heading back to the Yorkshire Dales to supplement their holding with around 120 more gimmer lambs.
Dan explained: “Most of the time we buy from the same vendors because we know what quality they breed and we know what quality we want. All the Skipton-sourced gimmer lambs go to our bought-in pure-bred Texel, Texel x Beltex and Suffolk x Beltex tups.
“Last year, we sold more than 1100 prime lambs, taking around 100 to the live market, the remainder going to Scotbeef in Bridge of Allan. The majority of these go to Marks & Spencer. We are looking for a carcase weight of 20kg to 21kg, which is ideal for Scotbeef – in fact, they demand it. They do not pay for any weight over 21kg. We finish all our lambs and don’t sell any as stores. We keep all our ewes for as long as they can do the right job, with six crops of lambs not uncommon.”
Spring sowing and calving begins in March, so they plan to lamb from April 1 when there is grass about. Dan explained: “We start lambing the ewes first, with the previous year’s bought-in gimmer lambs due to start lambing from April 20.
“It may seem a tight timescale, but in a multi-purpose operation like ours with timing critical to other seasonally-led enterprises we need it to be – and we can rely on the North of England Mule to deliver on time.
“We supplement the sheep’s grass-fed diet with greening, which gives them a boost prior to lambing. We also use our own home-grown oats and barley and a small amount of bought-in feed around lambing time.”
Of the North of England Mule, Dan commented: “They have always served us well – they do exactly what it says on the tin. They are easy to manage and work with. They lamb well, have plenty of them and are great mothers. Our scanning results have been consistently good, almost 200% last year and 210% the year before – 200% is perfect for our needs.
“They also look after themselves well, which is extremely important. I can’t remember the last time we had a caesareanor took a sheep to the vet. In a busy Spring when we are trying to plant we need sheep that are easy to manage and easy to keep.
“The positive characteristics of the Mule have not been bettered by any fancier continental breeds. The mothering ability of the English Mule is superior, although in my mind there is no such thing as an easycare sheep. There is only care or no care. That is why the North of England Mule works so well for us. They are the ideal sheep for our kind of operation.”
Animal care is fundamental at Straiton with the whole family involved in the springtime. Caroline and the kids are very conscientious at lambing time. Twins are lambed outside and triplets and singles are lambed inside. With 22 lamb adopter spaces, as many surplus lambs as possible are mothered on. Triplet ewes are turned out with twins and twin hoggs are turned out with singles. Surplus lambs are then reared on the Milkmaid 2000. After weaning these vulnerable pet lambs go onto clean fresh grass and creep feed.
Looking to the future, Dan and a group of about 20 local farmers, who are under the age of 50 and who also keep livestock, have established an informal unsponsored networking group Future Farming. They meet four times a year to learn from each other’s experiences with the aim of farming smarter rather than farming bigger. Dan has no hesitation in promoting the many and varied benefits of the all-purpose North of England Mule to fellow members of the group.