The UK’s popular Border Leicester may have has lost ground to the continentals, however, Northumberland producer, Neil Howie has high hopes of reversing that trend by relying on this cocky lugged, charismatic, white-faced breed to produce a range of productive females from a variety of breeds.

After growing up on the family farm with his twin brother Michael at Morwick, Neil moved up to Alnwick and now works just under 600 acres, which is split three ways between arable, beef and sheep.

The arable enterprise is made up of 175 acres, while the current 60 suckler cows which originate from Simmental and Limousin cattle have been crossed with Aberdeen-Angus and Hereford bulls in recent years.

“The two new breeds will produce better replacement suckler cows which have shown to be easier calving and quieter to work with,” explained Neil.

The Lyham ewe flock is made up of 650 ewes, and comprises a variety of breeds and crosses to include 75 Vendeen, 45 Border Leicester, 100 Cheviot, 300 Scotch Half-bred ewes and 130 Suffolk cross ewes.

“Leicesters have been in the family for years, so breeding Border Leicesters is very much a tradition and the reason why I have continued with them.

"However, I also always wanted something else that was unique and a bit hardier than the other continental crosses. It had to produce consistent strong lambs with a good carcase, and the Vendeens tick all these boxes for us.

“The two breeds are complete opposites and are not in competition with one another, they both work for us in different ways, with the Vendeen being a terminal sire whilst the Border Leicesters are used for crossing, to produce commercial sheep,” added Neil.

“Vendeen rams crossed with either the Scotch Half-bred or the Suffolk cross ewes also produce the a superior lamb for the meat market and giving the best result for out flock,” said Neil.

The Lyham Vendeen flock, established in 1986, originates from just two ewe lambs imported from their homeland in France that year as ewe lambs.

It’s the Vendeen flock that kicks of the lambing too, as they all lamb inside in the first three weeks in February with a four-week break before the Borders begin, with the final lot, the commercial ewes lambing in April.

“We wish we could condense lambing, but we just don’t have enough grass early on in the year to do so,” said Neil.

The Vendeens produce the highest lambing percentage at 210%, with the Suffolk crosses at 200%. Both the Scotch Half-breds and the Border Leicesters produce scanned lambing percentages of 190% with the Cheviots coming in at 170%. Overall lambing percentages for all flocks work out at 190% with triplet-borns twinned on to single-rearing ewes.

While lambing is always busy, Neil and shepherd, Alasdair Watson, have always been keen to promote the type of sheep they are breeding and particularly the Border Leicester at both local and national agricultural shows.

Such is the growing popularity of the Border, that the breed had it’s own section at the Great Yorkshire this year which proved a huge success for the Lyham flock, when it bagged the reserve overall with a ewe lamb.

The flock also came up trumps to win the breed championship at the Border Union with Westforth Barbarian, a shearling ram bought at Lanark in 2018 for £1900.

“This tup has a strong character and has carried his genetics through to produce really good lambs,” said Neil.

Outwith the ewe lambs retained for replacements and a small number sold privately all lambs are sold deadweight as Neil believes there is more money in them that way. Realistically they are selling them at 44-47kg weight.

Last year, he did however, sell store lambs with the shortage of grass in the summer following the drought, with the flock producing an overall average of £68.

The autumn is a busy time for all at North Lyham, with the firm producing ram lambs for the Border Leicester Society sale at Lanark, and Vendeen and Border Leicester shearling tups for next week’s Kelso Ram Sales, where Lyham prices have peaked at £1100 and £2000 respectively in the past.

The only bought in purchases are stock rams, which in the past have seen Eildon-bred tups stamp their mark most on the Borders.

“The £880 Eildon The Hirsel has by far had the biggest influence on our flock having produced the best males and breeding females for the flock – we kept him for six years purely because he was breeding so well,” said Neil.

The biggest purchase for the flock has also been an Eildon-bred ram bought from Jim Brown, with Eildon Echo purchased at £3900, again at Lanark.

“He was a similarly bred tup showing great character and excellent breed potentials that all buyers are looking for,” added Neil.

Straws of Oak Pride semen have also been purchased from Australia.

“Oak Pride, brought different qualities into the flock including size, skin and strong hardiness. He was one of a kind,” said Neil.

Sourcing a new Vendeen stock ram usually requires a trip to France as there are only 12 breeders in the UK.

The exception to this is Quitrent Roy which was bought privately in Ireland as a shearling.

“Vendeens are easy lambing ewes and can easily rear two lambs. They are also great hardy animals and perfect for producing lambs for the commercial market. They might not be trendy, but butchers appear to like the meat they produce – they are very much an underestimated sheep.

“Leicesters on the other hand are a popular eye-catching breed with their big flashy heads and ears. They have quality characteristics and are exactly what people are looking for to produce quality commercial breeding females.

“Strong bodied, with a sharp eye catching head, they are difficult to go past," added Neil.

Passionate about the benefits of both breeds Neil has also played a huge part in the Vendeen and Border Leicester societies having been elected chairman of the former, twice in 1996-1999 and 2010-2013. He was also president of the Borders from 2015-2017.

Although the uncertainty of the farming industry and prices of livestock not being where they should Neil still believes that his breeds have a strong future.

“Everyone needs a cross for the commercial market whilst the rare breeds have taken off down south, so hopefully it will just take time throughout. Border Leicesters crossed with the Cheviot ewe are producing the best for us."