The small but mighty South Lund flock does the business

August 4, 2020

Quality not quantity is the name of the game for Stephen Dodsworth, who is believed to own the highest running flock of park-type North Country Cheviots, at Nenthead, on Alston Moor, in Cumbria.

Born and raised in the picturesque village of Harome, near Helmsley, North Yorkshire, Stephen took over his parents’ Jim and Pat Dodsworth’s livestock haulage business when they sadly passed away at a young age. He also ran a small flock of Jacobs, but soon set his sights on something bigger.

“The North Country Cheviot was the only choice of breed for me. I knew a bit about them and in comparison to the Jacobs they were a progressive breed with genuine large-scale farmers at the back of them,” said Stephen, who, through showing Jacobs formed a strong friendship with Will Thomson, of Hownam Grange. It was he who encouraged him into the breed.

So, the South Lund Cheviot flock was established in 2005 after purchasing a few ewes locally, with his first tup bought at Kelso Ram Sales from Scott Davies, North Synton. Later, ewes were bought from the Thomsons at the breed sale at Lockerbie.

With his sheep and a busy day job as fieldsperson at Darlington Auction Mart, Stephen sold the haulage business in 2012, to concentrate more on farming. Five years later, in 2017, he was successful in acquiring the small unit of Woodbrae, Nenthead, Alston Moor.

“The sheep got a rude awakening moving from 250ft above sea level to 1600ft but they are amazingly versatile. This year we lambed the first batch of gimmers that were born here and they are really thriving well.

“The dry spring suited us as the land is on an old lead mine full of peat and is very acidic, it can be very wet here. Mineral bolusing has become standard practice very quickly up here!” said Stephen.

“Prior to moving, we put a lot of time, work, and effort into our North Country Cheviots, so we have to give them a chance to thrive. I see hundreds of thousands of sheep through my work every year and I have no doubt that the Northie is the best. They can play a part in any farming system with their hardiness, easy fleshing and mothering abilities.

“Our Northies are an expensive hobby, really, as we both work to pay the bills, the most important thing for us is that they start to pay their way and that hopefully over time we build up a good name for producing good sheep,” added Stephen, who is now retaining around 15 of the best females each year.

“The Cheviot tup over a Mule ewe breeds the perfect lowland mother which then crossed with a terminal sire results in near perfect prime lambs. The criticism of the Northie is often low lambing percentages but crossed over a Mule, the result is a better skinned, longer lasting ewe.

“The pure Northie is a pleasure to look at, full of character and style and always easy to sell for either feeding, breeding or slaughter,” added Stephen.

Lambing is inside for ease of management as Stephen works full time and his partner, Clare, also takes on another job, although he does take 10 days ‘holiday’ at this time. Otherwise, lambing is left to Clare and their two sons, Freddie and Patrick.

“We are really strict at culling and anything that has any sort of trouble at lambing time we get rid of – we don’t want the risk of any breeding traits creeping in that result in difficult to manage sheep. Ideally, we want sheep that can get on and lamb themselves,” said Stephen, who expects scanning percentages of 175% and 150% at speaning when the ewes return to the hill.

“Scanning percentages are terrific, but there is no chance of ewes running with triplets up here. They make a good job of singles and twins and we do marry up spare triplet lambs onto singles, with the odd few given away to local farmers to save the time and hassle involved rearing pet lambs.”

All ewes are vaccinated against enzootic and toxoplasmosis but are not vaccinated against clostridial diseases.

“When I looked at using Heptavac, there was nothing in it that our sheep couldn’t build up a natural resistance too. People just get into a routine when they are buying in replacements, but I don’t see it as being necessary. It makes life a lot easier now that we retain enough of our own home-bred replacements,” said Stephen, who doesn’t like to unnecessarily inject his flock.

“The biggest issue we get at lambing time is the weather! Up here we get six months of winter and six months of bad weather,” joked Stephen. There is a ski slope just two miles from the farm, which gives an idea of the height they are working at.

Prior to lambing, ewes are fed rolls from either Davidsons Animal Feeds, or Carrs Billington as well as some whole oats bought from a local farmer. Potential sale tups are fed a general purpose nut just a few weeks before the sales.

“Overall, we try to feed as little as possible, but the ewes need feeding prior to lambing. They don’t get much but we have found that feeding them less for a longer period of time produces better results.

“Due to the nature of where we are, if we left the ewes until six weeks prior to lambing before feeding them, they would get too lean. Additional feeding helps them tick along,” said Stephen, pointing out that lambs simply could not be finished off grass on the farm, and are therefore fed a Davidsons Reiver Grower nut to help finish them.

Most of the lambs are sold prime through Darlington Auction Mart, where Stephen watches the trade carefully before selling.

“I focus on more when I can get a good sale out of them, rather than aiming for a certain weight per head – it is all about the trade at the end of the day,” said Stephen, who has all the lambs gone by the end of September, leaving plenty of grass for ewes at tupping time.

Most years, six to 10 of the best ram lambs are kept to sell as shearlings at either Lockerbie, Clitheroe or at home privately. Last year, they averaged £430. “We are producing the best we can on the ground we have, we are not in the elite league of breeders but do hope to get there one day.

“I know that anyone who buys a tup from me will come back for another purely because my boys do really well where ever they go. They think it’s Christmas when they end up 500ft below where they’re used to,” said Stephen, whose best Cheviot ram sold for £650, whilst Jacobs have reached a top of 1200gns for a ewe lamb at Skipton in 2016.

Backing up the sale ring success is some self-promotion in the show ring, at both the Royal Highland and the Great Yorkshire with entries from both flocks.

Stephen’s Dodsworth Jacob flock is also believed to be the only flock in the country to have shown every year at the Harrogate event since breed classes were introduced in 1975.

“It started off with my parents taking us on a family holiday to the Great Yorkshire in 1975 and we soon began venturing to the Royal Show in 1985, and before long, the Royal Highland was added to the list in 1989. The shows are a real social circle that not only promotes the breed but also our flock,” said Stephen.

He took the reserve championship at the Great Yorkshire twice in 2014 and 2016 whilst also lifting two red tickets at the Highland in 2013, with the North Country Cheviots, and has won several breed champions with the Jacobs.

“We primarily go on holiday and the sheep come with us. It is important we enjoy it and don’t get too worked up that our sheep don’t win, we can only try our best. You can’t have a holiday you don’t enjoy just because your sheep are not winning,” said Stephen.

“This year has been the exception – not sitting with a bad hangover at the Great Yorkshire – however we have been lucky enough to have been kept busy with work,” added Stephen, pointing out that he celebrated the Royal Highland in true style with a ‘virtual gin party’ with some of the North Country Cheviot breeders.

“Breeders coming together is what sheep farming is all about, sharing each other’s successes and supporting each other along the way no matter what size of flock.”

Accordingly, Stephen believes 80 ewes is the perfect number to be able to manage alongside his full-time job at Darlington Market, without expanding the flock any further.

“I can look after that number properly at nights and at weekends, anymore and it would be a lot of extra work for myself – I want to breed quality not quantity. However, it does depend what my children want to do once they have grown up, if they are interested in the farm, there is no harm in looking to increase numbers,” he added.

“As an industry as a whole, I am very positive about farming in general and recently prices for both sheep and cattle have risen on the corresponding year.

“The sheep trade will become sticky come August/September as increased supplies come on the market. Prices are holding up just now because of the Asian festival at the end of July.”

Instead, he said the industry should be focusing more on better labelling.

“Food traceability is the most important thing in our industry – people need to be aware of where their food comes from, and that comes with correct labelling. A trade deal with America shouldn’t affect here. If our product is labelled correctly people will buy it,” he concluded.

Article written by The Scottish Farmer and all photos taken by Rob Haining of The Scottish Farmer

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