SWITCHING his breeding policy to use only Swaledale sheep has totally transformed Paddy Corbett’s farm business by lowering input costs, increased prolificacy and producing stronger lambs.

He farms hill land in the Sperrin Mountains close to the village of Draperstown, in Co Londonderry, with his wife, Emma and three young children. Both work off the farm, with Paddy spending three weeks in six working offshore on oil rigs in the North Sea, while Emma is a nurse.

With such demanding work and parental schedules, Paddy’s goal was to run a sheep breed that complemented the hill land and were easy to manage, resulting in a good work life balance. After trying a few breeds Paddy discovered, quite by chance, that the Swaledale was exactly suited to the characteristics of his hill land and his needs.

Since starting to see the benefits of the Swaledale breed, Paddy has decided to sell off the remainder of his commercial flock of 300 ewes and concentrate on a new flock of pedigree Swaledale sheep, currently numbering 150 ewes.

“Whilst being involved in sheep farming all my life, I didn’t start hill farming until 2006 and have learned the hard way since then,” said Paddy. “Over the years we tried various traditional hill sheep breeds, as well as a number of crosses, but could never find the right balance in a breed that could thrive on our hill.

“On this farm we traditionally ran over 400 hill sheep. Over the past couple of years, since introducing pedigree Swaledales, our commercial numbers have decreased to 300 Swaledale cross Lanark ewes. We fatten most of our male lambs, which by using kill sheet data, has proved to be a great way of benchmarking the performance of each of the hill breeds and crosses we have tried over the years.

“Eight years ago, we bought our first Swaledale shearling rams and started crossing them with the Lanark-type Blackface ewes,” said Paddy. “These shearlings were well bred sheep from the north of England.

"In the first cross, we saw the differences very fast and the lambs were slightly bigger, healthier and were easy lambed. We also noticed the carcases were forming quicker and were able to carry more weight.

“Prior to using the Swaledale, our scanning percentage was between 1.2 and 1.3 lambs per ewe with average finished carcase weights running between 19.5kg to 20.5kg. After introducing, it we were clearly achieving a larger lamb, with increased hybrid vigour that was more suited to our hill conditions.

"Also, in subsequent years as the Swaledale/BF cross gimmer hoggs progressed into the flock, there was a notable increase in prolificacy,” he said.

Normally, Paddy lambs the flock in April and would run the store lambs on the hill until November before bringing them indoors to fatten on concentrates. This system proved costly, with the lambs from the traditional breed crosses having to be brought in earlier to get them to the right weights.

However, over the years as the Swaledale breed had a stronger influence in his flock, he started to save on concentrates as the lambs were naturally heavier coming off the hill and only grass fed.

Paddy said: “The male lambs were ready to sell much quicker and thus also gave us access to the store lamb market. This new move not only meant we had a viable lamb to sell earlier but also saved us substantial money on concentrate costs. The ewe lambs were twice the size of the ones we started off with from the traditional hill breeds.

“On top of this, we were also introducing hybrid vigour to the flock which had a multitude of benefits in the long run,” he added.

In order to pursue and enhance the Swaledale trait in his flock, Paddy knew he had to source new lines of genetics, but he didn’t realise how infectious this was to become.

“We needed new Swaledale genetics to introduce into our flock and about four years ago started sourcing some pedigree females and tups over in England,” said Paddy. “At that time I didn’t realise how bad I was about to catch the Swaledale bug and how the breed was about to totally transform my farming business.”

As Paddy witnessed more benefits with the Swaledale, he took the decision to go fully pedigree and sell out the entire commercial flock. Paddy and Emma have since established Meadow Park Pedigree Swaledales, a name that is now widely recognised across both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland sheep farming sectors.

“We imported the first pedigree female Swaledale sheep from Hoggarths Farm, belonging to Chris and Raymond Calvert, and Patrick Sowerby, at Oakbank Farm. The females we brought in had all been tupped across the water and our first scans averaged 1.92 lambs per ewe, which was a big increase for us.

“The pedigree Swaledale is performing very well indeed on our hill land and we currently have a selection of shearling rams from the top Swaledale bloodlines. They have grazed the hill all summer and are in excellent order at around 90kg.

“Among them are sons of the £21,000 Stoney Hill Jester, bred by Michael Watson, and grandsons of the £38,000 Oakbank Delboy ram,” he said.

With more than 70 years of breeding records personally to hand, Paddy really goes the extra mile to achieve the best results from his pedigree flock. He keeps a close eye on which bloodlines of the breed are achieving the best results at shows and sales and can trace his own flock genetics back to 1920 when the Swaledale Sheep Breeders Association was formed.

“Starting down the pedigree route was quite daunting at first but with much needed help from the Swaledale Sheep Breeders Association and its members, our journey towards being pedigree breeders has been made possible,” said Paddy. “I like to ensure I introduce the best genetics into my flock that have a proven performance history and will do well for me.

“I’m totally convinced going full pedigree will improve our farm management and our work life balance, as I can go to the oil rigs for three weeks at a time knowing the sheep can fend for themselves up on the hill,” he added.