Swaledale sheep have always been renowned for their hardy maternal characteristics being native to the high heather moorlands of North Yorkshire while their cross-bred progeny, the ever popular North of England Mule, continue to dominate much of the country’s lowground pastures.

It is a breeding policy which has worked a treat for so many flockmasters up and down the country – despite the introduction of various cross-bred and composite breeding females – and it's one which appears to be gaining strength with the breed having been exported to Eire, Estonia and Germany.

But, while the breed appears to be thriving, sadly it is unable to celebrate the centenary of the Swaledale Sheep Breeders' Association, (SSBA) which was founded in 1920, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Scottish Farmer has nevertheless dug deep to find out the ins and outs of the breed from immediate past secretary, John Stephenson – the man behind the introduction of Swaledale sheep classes to The Royal Highland Show.

p> How long have you been associated with Swaledale sheep and the breed’s association?

Secretary for 18 years and worked for the association for three years before becoming secretary. Family has always been connected with the Swaledale Sheep Breeders' Association (SSBA) – since its formation in 1920, my paternal grandfather was one of the original members and served on the council of management until his death at an early age. My father was a district secretary and his eldest brother was vice-chairman of the association for a number of years.

What did you do prior to taking on the role of breed secretary?

I worked for Harrison and Hetherington at Middleton in Teesdale mart as mart foreman and fieldsman as well as working for WF and DM Metcalf of Barningham. Prior to that I was shepherd on Barningham Estate for 16 years.

What makes a good Swaledale sheep?

That is a matter of opinion and everyone has their own thoughts.

Are you as passionate about Swaledale sheep as the breeders?

Yes, but for the breed as a whole because of my family's involvement with the breed.

How has the breed changed in terms of fashion and popularity over the years?

Over the last 100 years the breed has changed approximately every 20-30 years – fashion dictates. The popularity of the breed increased in the late 1960's and 1970's because of the rise in popularity of the North of England Mule ewe.

When did membership of the association peak, or is it still growing and if so, what is the total membership?

Membership peaked at the turn of the 21st Century at just over 1400 but has decreased for various reasons to around 1100.

How many Swaledale members are there in Scotland and where is membership rising the most?

There are not many paid up members in Scotland but a considerable number of breeding sheep are sold north of the Border. The largest increase in membership in the last couple of years is in Ireland, both north and south.

Is there demand for Swaledale sheep outwith the UK?

There is a large demand in Eire and over the years interest has been shown from other parts of Europe with sheep exported to Germany and Estonia.

The SSBA put a ban on AI’ing and flushing all pure-bred sheep some years ago, is that rule likely to continue when so many other breeds are AI’ing?

The subject has been discussed frequently at meetings of the council of management, there is always the possibility of the rule changing.

The breed record for a Swaledale ram is £101,000, paid in 2002 at Kirkby Stephen for a shearling. Do you foresee that being broken in the near future when the industry has seen so many centre and breed records this year?

Yes, there have been times in the last three to four years when I thought this would happen. We will have to wait and see what happens in October.

How do Swaledale breeders and purchasers of the big five-figure priced Swaledale shearling rams justify such sales, when hill farming has been in decline for so long?

This is one of the most asked questions over the last 18 years. Breeders buy what they hope will benefit their flock in the future. The breeding of stock is usually for the long term.

The amount of ‘luck’ a breeder gives a purchaser is always a hot topic of debate amongst other flockmasters. Does the practice still continue and if so, is it still curtailed at 10%?

The practice of 'luck money' still continues with the recommended amount at Association sales being 5%.

As secretary of the Swaledale Sheep Association, you travelled throughout much of the UK. What shows and sales did you enjoy the most during that time?

I enjoyed all of the sheep events I attended, some more than others, with the enjoyment not being apparent until I returned home. The show I enjoyed most was the Highland, which was sorely missed this year.

What is the biggest difference between Swaledale sheep breeders and other hill sheep farmers?

I don't think there is a big difference, we are all faced with very similar problems.

What are your biggest achievements as secretary of the Swaledale Sheep Association?

I think the three biggest achievements in my time as Secretary are:-

Classes for Swaledale sheep at the Royal Highland

Marks and Spencer selling branded Swaledale lamb from January until May

The number of Swaledale breeding sheep exported to Ireland

What has been your most enjoyable ‘kist’ party?

Some very enjoyable 'kist' parties have been attended at the Highland but I think the best were at Smithfield when it was held in Earls Court where you met people from all parts of the U.K. And at which I made some lifelong friends particularly Brian MacTaggart and Malcolm Stewart.

What has been the most memorable sale during your time as secretary?

Easy to answer. In 2002, my first sale season as secretary, and the sale of Arthur Slack's ram at £101,000.

How would you like to see the breed and the association progress?

A more difficult question. Who knows what the future holds for hill sheep farming? I hope that in the future Swaledale breeders do not lose sight of the points that made the breed popular.

Most embarrassing moment with the Swaledale Sheep Breeders’ Association?

Yorkshire Show 2014. I blamed the MacTaggart and Aiken families, that is all I have to say!

If you hadn’t been secretary of the breed for all those years, what would you have liked to do?

Not really sure what I would have liked to do, as long as I remained healthy and continued to work in the sheep industry.

Your retirement came sooner than expected as a result of Covid-19, how have you coped and how do you plan to enjoy your retirement?

My retirement was always planned for June 2020 when the association celebrated its Centenary, but the end came very quietly, which was what I always wanted to happen, but not as a lot of people hoped. Pamela will tell you that I have not coped at all well with not being able to go anywhere. My family will say that I am going to do what I have always done but not get paid for it.

Finally, what is your abiding memory working for the Swaledale Sheep Breeders’ Association and if you weren’t employed by them, what other breed would you have liked to have been associated with?

My abiding memory of the my time working for the Swaledale Sheepbreeders' Association is the friends we have made throughout the sheep industry and the places we have visited.

As I do not wish to offend any of the other breed secretaries, who have become good friends, I think the safe answer is none.