By Kayley Kennedy

Photos by Kayley Kennedy

PRODUCING pedigree sheep that hit the headlines and high prices is one of the aims for many breeders but being able to back that up by producing one of the most popular and prolific breeding ewes in the UK is a testament to any breeding programme.

That’s certainly the case at Carry House, set on the hills outside of Wark, near Hexham, where the sale of Mule ewe lambs and gimmers is the backbone of the business which has in turn increased the popularity of the Bluefaced Leicesters bred on the 260-acre site.

There have always been Blackface and Mule ewes at Carry House but with no fell ground for Blackie replacements to run on, Martyn and his father, Robyn, who came to Carry House in 1961, have never bred their own. Instead, the 600-strong flock of Hexham-type Blackfaces is made up of ewe lambs bought from Hexham as well as privately-purchased gimmers, with bloodlines coming from Carrick, Wanwood Hill and Prospect House.

“In a Blackface, skin is at the top of our priority list because the Hexham type has a lot of size, frame and good clean colours but skins have been their fault so we’re looking for a bare coat, that’s one of our philosophies,” explained Martyn of the base for Mule breed.

“We’re also looking for a nice clean colour on the lighter side rather than black – years ago we were buying the darker sorts but they’re not needed with the more modern Bluefaced Leicester.”

The flock of 80 Mules sees around half of that number used as recipients for the Bluefaced Leicesters as the team has increased the amount of embryo transfer work lately, while the remainder are crossed to Suffolk rams. As well as producing fat lambs that are sold at around 16 weeks of age direct to the abattoir, averaging around 21kg deadweight, these Mules work as foster mothers for any triplet Blues born as Martyn doesn’t have any sort of milk rearer for surplus lambs.

As for the Blues, there are around 45 breeding females, of which 10 are typically sold as in-lamb gimmers at the January sale at Carlisle, while 35 make up the main breeding flock with the top eight flushed each year.

“We used to run 50-60 Leicesters but we cut the numbers back and improved on quality as we were able to keep daughters of the top ewes and cull to bottom 20-30% depending on if they were poor breeders or didn’t produce enough milk. That being said, we’re still producing the same number of lambs each year,” pointed out Martyn.

The flocks all work hand in hand and that’s evident in the fact no Blue is used for pedigree work unless he’s proven himself as a breeder of Mules, as Martyn believes there’s no point in breeding a Blue that won’t do the job it’s supposed to.

One of the first rams to make a big impact on the Mule crop was the Z1 Breck House, bought 11 years ago as a lamb at Hawes for just £900.

“He had a major influence and gave us a big step up,” said Martyn. “He bred very good Mules that were modern before their time with very clean and hard colours, just what everybody wants nowadays.

“Unless they do a good job breeding Mules, rams are not used on the Blue flock and we’re not interested in breeding a pretty Leicester to win a show as, to me, blood is just as important to looks,” he added.

That Breck House ram’s breeding was seen in the C29 Carry House Cracker ram, a home-bred grand-son which also proved his worth both on Blues and Mules.

A few years later Martyn took a step-up price-wise and bought the F1 Oak House for £10,200, together with Neil Marston and Ron Wilson, which proved to be another very successful breeder of Mules and Blues.

The following year, after a trip to East Gate Show in May, a tup lamb from Neil’s Highberries flock caught Martyn’s eye when he jumped a gate and ran off. Not putting him off, Martyn decided there and then he wanted him and when the lamb went on to stand male champion at the Royal Highland, Martyn secured a half share in the now famous G1 Highberries Highlander.

That same year, Andy Hunter, from The Steel, and Carry House paid £10,000 for G34 Midlock which has bred winning Mules for both flocks as well as Martyn’s best sale to date, the H1 Carry House that sold to the Thornborrows at Easter Dawyck for £23,000, where he’s been making his mark.

Martyn also sold a son of the Midlock ram, J2 Carry House known as Jackpot, for £14,000 to Riddings in 2016, and as he struggled to find something he liked as much he later bought a half share back and swears Jackpot is the best tup he’s had, winning the prestigious progeny show at Penrith. That same sale, Jackpot’s ET brother, J1, stood champion and sold for £5500 to Ireland with Alastair Christie and William Adams.

“That 2015 sale was a huge step up for us – it felt like we’d been knocking on the door for years and finally cracked it. We averaged £7108 for 12 lambs which still stands as a record average,” said Martyn of the flock’s strong sale day.

Females, too, have sold well in the last three years with the biggest of the lamb crop offered for sale at Carlisle, both as lambs as well as in-lamb gimmers which have both peaked at £3000. Earlier this year, seven such gimmers averaged £2153 while, last year, five ewe lambs levelled at £1995.

“Female sales are becoming an important part of the business and there are new faces getting in to the breed all the time which means they’re after females to start their flock. We’ve sold tups that have bred well which has increased the interest in the females – it’s the best advert you can have and we’ve been fortunate our rams have gone on to breed well,” added Martyn.

They’re sticking with the crossing type at Carry House, too, despite having bred the traditional Blue up until only a few years ago.

“In the days of all one type of Bluefaced Leicester, in the early 1970s, we had a tup that bred good Mules that was paler than the usual so we used him a bit on pure Blue ewes. We then sent his daughters to a friend that was doing something similar and since then we’ve had the two types – the traditional type and the crossing type, with the bloodlines never mixing,” explained Martyn of the origin of the crossing type, at Carry House at least.

“As the crossing type increased in popularity we kept more and ended up dispersing the true Blues a few years ago. But fashion has always been that way – we aim to breed what people want to buy and the Mule lamb trade drives the Bluefaced Leicester trade.”

And, despite the Blues getting the Carry House name out there, it all goes back to the Mule and producing the hardy cross-bred female.

“The Mule has a proven track record spanning decades – they’re very prolific, milky and easy kept with the ability to raise two lambs to meet the R3L grade for the supermarket trade. Lambs may not achieve the top price per kg but no other breed will return the same kg per acre as the Mule,” stated Martyn.

“This spring there’s been more interest in this area as the white-faced types have been more affected by the weather than the Mules – it’s the worst lambing we’ve ever had. They’ve been bad in previous years but never for as long.”

Most of the Mule ewe lambs produced at Carry House are sold through Hexham in pens of 25, to a top of £155, and nearly all go on to be stock ewes to a lot of repeat customers, while the rest are sold privately.

As for the wedders, they’re finished off grass and sold through Randal Parker, ending up in Sainsbury’s. Most of these are finished off grass and the aim is to get them all away by December.

It’s a good job the breed is prolific, given the wet winter many of the UK’s farmers have faced, and the current extreme weather to the opposite extent is proving equally challenging for many.

“This spring was definitely one of the toughest we’ve faced. We had a good scan – about 186% for the Blackies and 200% for the Mules and Blues – and the ewes were in good condition which I’m thankful for as we had a heavy snow fall then incessant ran and a real wind chill which left a lot of frozen water in the lambing shed. Thankfully, the lamb crop is about what we would normally have but it’s been a huge workload getting to that stage,” said Martyn.

“We also had a huge feed bill and with no grass growing now due to the sunshine it’s been a very challenging 12 months as it felt like we had no spring, just an extreme winter to an extreme summer. It’ll also impact on rising costs as many farmers will be short of fodder and straw.”

With that in mind, and no family interested in taking on the tenancy from Martyn and his wife, Lesley, who works with the Forestry Commission, Martyn has already reduced cattle numbers from the 50-head mark to the current 35 cow and calf units. These Limousin cross Blue cows which are covered by a Limousin bull and have produced calves up to £3000, are due to be dispersed later in the year.

“My theory is that unless a calf makes £100 per month before selling it’s not worth it. At the minute we’re just making but no more, although those show calves do help with the average,” explained Martyn, adding the latest batch of 10-month-old bullocks and heifers averaged £1060 when sold through Hexham in March.

“We’re selling off to help with labour as good labour is becoming increasingly difficult to find and it’s a two-man job to work with cattle safely, whereas sheep you can do on your own. I’ve also a half eye on Brexit and there’s a lot of money tied up in cattle, so there’s no point waiting until next year to act.

“But it all comes back to efficiency and output rather than solely the butcher trade for those top-quality lambs. All the white-faced commercial ewes need a Mule to breed them out of in the first place to get the mothering ability, so there’s a strong future for the Mule and Bluefaced Leicester and they’ve certainly risen to the challenges of the other breeds over the years,” Martyn concluded.