Breeding strong, prolific ewes and lambs with an abundance of ‘get up and go’ is the name of the game for Northumberland estate farm manager, Dominic Naylor, who is at the helm of the North Middleton Swaledale flock.

Dominic took on the role at Lilburn Estates, North Middleton near Wooler, just nine years ago and is now in charge of a massive stratified sheep breeding enterprise comprising Blackface hill ewes and Scotch Mules, right down to his favourite, a 400-ewe Swaledale flock.

“We work with numerous breeds and I take pride in them all so I am not biased, however I couldn’t go past the Swaledale when we were establishing a new hill flock, which long-term we hope will help to improve the Blackface hefts on the estate,” said Dominic.

The Scottish Farmer:

THESE SWALES are grazing on reclaimed land from trees Ref:RH080920170

When Dominic first came to the estate, he was given the permission to clear a 1700-acre wood – a rare thing in itself these days. All tree stumps were removed, and the first shoots of grass and heather are now coming through.

“Having worked with Swaledales previously, I knew they would tick all the boxes from a business point of few and would stretch our Blackie hefts on the estate,” said Dominic.

Initially, 50 Swaledale gimmers were purchased as foundation females from former breed society chairman, Alan Alderson, Barras Farm.

“We began just breeding away, purchasing 20 gimmers every year from Alan, at Kirkby Stephen, and we now have a 400 ewe upland hill flock for the new cleared fell area,” added Dominic.

A further 50 ewes were also purchased at Kirkby, from Brian Thornborrow of Firth Holme, West Stonesdale.

The Scottish Farmer:

SOME OF the Swaledale gimmers – the foundation of a flock that relies on an ideal breed for upland and hill farms Ref:RH080920164

“I want to work with a Brexit breed – one which doesn’t require labour – which both the Swaledale and Stabiliser cattle are. They are top class mothers, prolific milkers requiring minimal assistance. You need to work with breeds that help you,” added Dominic, who added that his son, Ralph at just 11 years of age lambed the Swales himself and only had to lamb one ewe.

The first few years on farm the Swales produced average lambing percentages of 170%, which in more recent years have peaked at 187%, for lambing mid April onwards.

Hill lambs are speaned in October and as many as possible are finished off grass with the remainder on creep feed.

“Our main focus is prime lamb production so conformation is key in our breeding policy but we also need a big strong hardy breeding ewe.

“Swale lambs are on par with the Blackies in terms of carcase weights and we certainly can’t fault the breeds for getting too fat,” said Dominic, who aims to sell lambs at 18kg deadweight, with many of the hill lots sold to Sainsburys.

The Scottish Farmer:

A STRATIFIED farm enables this year’s crop of ram lambs to be used as stock tups for the flock Ref:RH080920157

The best of the home-bred Swaledale ram lambs are retained for use over the Blackie hefts or as chasers on the pure flock.

“We are getting to a stage where we could potentially start to sell a few Swaledale tups at sales, but we have just built up our numbers to maintain the Blackie hefts, and we need to keep breeding good, strong hardy tups for them,” said Dominic, who would sell at St John’s Chapel if it ever came to it.

In the early days, it was rams from John White, Rigg Farm and the Raines of Stanhope Gate, that stamped their mark on this new flock.

Managing a massive moorland estate which is reliant more on an income from grouse than sheep, is nevertheless problematic.

“The management of our sheep flock is entirely controlled by the grouse. Five years ago, for example, we had to reduce our hill sheep numbers off the moor in the winter, because the heather wasn’t growing. This forced us to reduce our sheep numbers dramatically, and we are only now just building them back up.

“But we need the sheep to ensure the uplands don’t become overgrown. Before lambing, we gather all the ewes into in-bye fields to keep a closer eye on them, but they are immediately let back out to the hill once they’ve lambed,” said Dominic.

The Scottish Farmer:

SWALEDALES EWE lambs will be used to stretch the Blackie hefts on Lilburn Estates Ref:RH080920162

Cattle are also bred for finishing on farm, with males sold as young bulls at 12 months of age through Dunbia, to average 365kg deadweight, whilst the heifers level at 320kg deadweight at 20-months of age. With a range of U and R grades achieved.

The top 8% of the heifers are retained for breeding, and are either bulled with an Angus or a Stabiliser with the remainder also finished on farm.

“Our Angus crosses don’t have any calving problems and being easy fleshing, they finish well. They also attract premium prices being Angus.

“Stabiliser and Angus cattle are a no brainer to me – I will calve less than 2% of them, they require very little labour, and one bull will easily cover 40 cows,” said Dominic, who calves all year round.

The Scottish Farmer:

THESE SWALES are grazing on reclaimed land from trees Ref:RH080920170

Although Dominic has only been working on the estate for nine years, he is passionate about hill farming and the role it has to plan in the farming industry.

“I believe the industry has a strong future despite the fact there are a huge number of organisations which have nothing to do with UK agriculture, looking to influence its direction of travel,” said Dominic.

“It is tiring for farmers to continually hear about the media’s desire for home produced, environmentally friendly food, yet at the same time government is heading towards a ‘no deal’ with Europe, and appears to want to rid the country of sheep and plant more trees. The two don’t add up.

“Zero food inflation cannot work alongside demanding the highest welfare and carbon friendly produce. Government has to wake up to the fact that if they want high welfare, it either has to be paid for at farmgate or food prices have to go up.

“I also believe the public want to know how we produce our food, they have a genuine interest and desire to support that sort of farming.

“There is a bright future with plenty of young people coming through desperate to farm, so we have to put the faith in their hands,” concluded Dominic.

The Scottish Farmer:

ENJOYING THE sun ... it’s hard work being a sheep dog

Farm facts

Acreage: 30,000 acres estate of which 21 farms in hand, one let out. 12,000 acres of moorland or fell and 3000 acres of woodlands; 3000 acres of combinable crops and 1200 acres of first cut and the rest grazing. The farm will produce 20,000 tonnes of silage per year

Height: Estate rises from 400ft to 2670ft above sea level, running on top of part of the Cheviot hills.

Sheep numbers: Stratified flock running 3500 Blackface ewes, of which 2000 go back to the Blackface tup or the Swaledale, with the remaining 1500 put to the crossing Bluefaced Leicester sire; a further 400 Swaledales bred pure, 5500 Mules made up of Scotch and North of England, 40 pure Bluefaced Leicsters for breeding their own tups and a flock of 100 pure Suffolks.

Cattle numbers: Some 2500 suckler cows to include 250 in-calf heifers, with a further 1000 heifers, and 1200 bulls finished on farm. A 5500 herd of cattle made up of Stabiliser dam line, with 70% put to the Aberdeen-Angus sire to ensure Angus premium, with the remainder put back to Stabiliser bulls.

On the spot

Best investment: It has got to be the first 50 Barras Swaledales that we purchased.

Best advice received: Take time to think, step back and look at the decision. It’s not wasted time!

Biggest achievement to date: My family: My wife, Rachel, better known as ‘piglet’ and my two children, Ralph (11) and Ruby (14). I wasn’t born into farming and yet I’m now running a 30,000-acre farm is something special!

Hobbies out with farming: I take time to train my own sheep dogs, which can be a challenge in itself!

If you could change one thing, what would it be? My bank balance, so that I could buy my own farm, along with having my own Swaledale flock.

Biggest threat? The continued cheap food policy, along with a government that doesn’t want to support agriculture.