Saturday, 31 October 2009

Autumn in Tarset

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If it wasn't for the signs of autumn we could be forgiven for thinking we were still in summertime. This last month/6 weeks has seen tremendously mild weather, not always dry however but seems drier than what we experienced through the summer months. It has been so mild that Shep has often been working in a T-shirt and maggots were still to be found just ten days ago.

The clocks changed last weekend, dark now by 5pm give or take 10 minutes or so, a welcome respite in my eyes, an excuse to get finished at night and settled in the house. The winter months giving Shep the opportunity to re-charge the batteries ready for the onslaught which will commence in the spring. Not everyone views the 'dark winter days' quite like I do but bear in mind any of you who dread these dark nights, it won't be long 'til they draw out again. By mid January they will be pulling out with spring just around the corner - not long they way the time flies.
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We have had a tremendous show of autumn colour, not many frosts or gales has allowed the trees to show their splendour, sunshine has been lacking of late to accentuate the colours but they are still there to enjoy. Even the hill ground has shown its beauty with its myriad of rusts,golds and browns.

Recent rain has set the fish running, they've been hanging around in the North Tyne river waiting for a chance to head for their spawning grounds. Anglers have been out in force this past week trying to hook that thirty pounder before the season closes tonight (31st Oct), a quick squint at the Linn (waterfall) this afternoon revealed sea trout of various sizes jumping, a salmon wasn't spotted but they will be there. Further heavy rainfall is forecast for tomorrow and these fish will be so happy to be able to negotiate the burns with ease and get to the redds, their spawning grounds, and do what nature has sent them up here to do. It's good to see them back.

Farmers have enjoyed the weather this back end too, but (there always has to be a but!) cattle are needing a bite of extra feed, silage is beginning to head out to the beasties, unfortunately by this time of the year even a dry day has little drying ground wise and so the ground is getting soft and cattle are beginning to plunge.

It's really about time they were heading for their winter sheds before they plunge and poach the ground too much, however, the mild weather causes problems when it comes to housing cattle as they will sweat with a high probability of pneumonia setting in. Right at this moment it would be unwise to house them, colder, sharper weather would be preferred.

With the forecast for further rain the ground will be getting wetter and cattle will sink further but until 'healthier' weather appears those cattle will most probably remain outside - deemed the lesser of two evils.

Sheep are taking no hurt, hill ewes are fit this back end and are coming a raid (on heat), hanging to fences and teasing the tups who are beginning to fight and sort out the pecking order, they too are fit and waiting impatiently to be let out to the ewes. Tups will be set out shortly, those who lamb earlier will probably have their tups out by the end of this coming week, the hill tups will have to wait until later in the month.

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Friday, 30 October 2009

Lanark Tup Lamb Sale

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Well Shep made it over the border again and headed up to Lanark for the second days sale of tup lambs.

The day previous had been the shearling day but Shep remained in Northumberland to sort the lambs out-bye ready for the store sale the following day and get the ewe hoggs ready for the wagon which was booked to take them away to winter keep as the shepherd himself needed to get to Lanark to purchase his shearlings, no great hardship as Shep was just trotting along as a spectator - a day away for the lamb sale would be fine.

Heading off to spectate meant there was no need to leave home at 5.30am as those had done the day previously, no we had a leisurely start and steady run up there, arriving just after 11. The sale was due to start at 10.30 so we knew we would miss some of those in the catalogue, it's sad but for once a lie in held priority to getting there on time. If only we'd known the sale was rescheduled to start at 11 we may well have left half an hour sooner! Seemingly there were a 100 less tup lambs forward than on the catalogue and so the auctioneers delayed the start of the sale by half an hour, we missed the Drumgrange lamb which sold for £36,000 quite literally by seconds - that's life! (I did enjoy the leisurely start to the day so won't grumble)

I have to say I do scratch my head at these prices, a lamb making £36,000? Okay, it would be bought by a consortium of farmers - a leg each so to speak, they would either take sheep to him or get semen from him implanted into their ewes, but I still can't help think it's a lot of money, however it was a long way from the top price of the day.

It would be unfair to pass judgement on the lambs forward as we found ourselves perched up in the gods; not the ideal place to study a sheep, I also never went through the pens, due mainly to the fact the ring was packed and had I left my spot I might never have got close enough to see a sheep in the ring for the rest of the day. I stood glued to the spot for the duration of the sale.

I will say that I was taken aback at the amount of black wool visible in the sheep. Scotch sheep were renowned for clean colours and clean wool, as I've already said in a past blog the 'type' has changed in recent years and show more colour (blacker faces and darker legs), undoubtedly when you get colour like that it will invariably show in the wool but a number of these sheep were being sold with black collars, a lot of black in the tail and no doubt any amount of spots to be found throughout their bodies. That I did not expect and especially not at the money they were realising. Quite an eye opener I can tell you.

The photograph at the top of this page is a lamb off Nunnerie, I would like to tell you it was the one which made £60,000 and duly topped the sale, but that would be a lie, it was the sheep which followed at £22,000 - why? well, it's one of those embarrassing moments that Shep often has too many of. As the auctioneer passed the £30,000 mark I realised I maybe ought to be taking a photo, unfortunately as I raised the camera to my eye the batteries fell out the bottom of it and clattered everyone below on the head - umm! not the brightest of moves! I received one or two glowers and wished a hole would open up, all four batteries were kindly returned by which time the tup had been sold. Only I could cause mayhem when you truly couldn't have heard a pin drop..................

For someone who always feels self conscious when using the camera in public I really could have done without drawing attention to myself, apologies to all those whose concentration was shattered by my reckless batteries. Hence the photograph is of the next tup in the ring - end of story!

My spirits were lifted shortly after when a text came through on the mobile to thank me for doing a good job of drawing the lambs yesterday followed with the prices they had made. The little things in life can mean a lot.
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Above: tup lamb off Connachan selling for £26,000

Friday, 16 October 2009

six day standstill

Nothing quite like rising early, when still dark and leaving home almost as early to arrive out-bye to find it's not only dark but also foggy! Told you, the fog always waits 'til Shep has to go out-bye!

An hour was spent supping coffee and having a crack, listening to the woes and complications of work/buying/ selling and the weather before heading for home, just as most were rolling over and thinking about rising on a Saturday morning.

What woes? Well, the pressure is on, these sheep need gathered for keeling, tailing, dosing, tagging and all manner of things. There's always tomorrow except time's getting on. Y'see the ewe hoggs (keeping ewe lambs) are coming off their mothers on the hill and heading away for winter keep.

They are to go nearer the coast onto better ground, safe from marauding tups and somewhere kinder to encourage them to grow. The wagon is booked for a few days time as the farm they are heading to wants them there at that specific time as the resulting six day standstill (unable to move stock off the farm for six days) fits in conveniently with the farmer for that particular week, doesn't disrupt any important sale dates. Time is ticking on...

There's a few days yet except there are two important tup sales to attend as tups are required, have to be bought, are definitely needed. Time is still ticking on.....

In the meantime it is realised that cattle have to be bought in, a new venture for this particular shepherd, one necessitated by his employers. Further complications arise, as, unlike the tups to be bought, which can go into the shed which is a vet approved isolation unit and therefore not disrupting any selling, the cattle will definitely put the farm on a standstill and there are still a number of store lambs to be sold.

The lambs could go this Friday, unfortunately that coincides with one of the afore mentioned tup sales which means an early rise and away to get to the sale in time and anyhow there is no time to sort and draw the lambs as the ewe hoggs are to attend to......

The following Friday is the first of the cattle sales, as there are few sales for this particular breed of cattle then absenteeism is not an option. Complications are arising and as the mathematics is done it is becoming apparent that these lambs may well be stuck on the place until mid November, by which time the grass will be in short supply and the lambs could well be going back over.

Once again the problems raise their ugly head. There is a way around this, someone else - Shep or who so ever it may be - will have to go, get the store lambs gathered, shed them and load the wagon, follow it to the mart and sell the sheep therefore enabling the shepherd to attend to the necessities of buying the stock he requires, or else those lambs will have to wait another month before going to market, an option the shepherd would prefer not to take as no one likes to see their stock depreciating.

It has just dawned on me that you're most likely wondering if it wouldn't be more convenient to sell the lambs on a Monday or Wednesday, would that not fit in better with the sales/work and weather? It may have done except the sale for store lambs is on a Friday, so Friday it has to be.

Pre 2001 this problem would never have arisen, however today, post 2001, buying and selling often revolves around a six day cycle. Mistakes have been made and it is easy to see how this happens but the consequences can be severe - a breach of rules and regulations is not taken lightly by those who enforce them.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

pea souper

Autumn is definitely upon us, the trees are changing and if the winds are co-operative we ought to be in for a beautiful show of autumn colour. The bracken is already over and in the right light make the hills look beautiful with all the different shades of brown and gold.

Then there is those foggy mornings, which aren't always present in the back end, they usually appear when ever Shep is heading away out-bye to gather, just to make life difficult!

We had one such morning recently. I headed off into the Rede valley when life still seemed dark; another sign of autumn - the mornings being slow to lighten. It was probably darker than it ought to have been as when my eyes finally focused and I realised the car windscreen wasn't misted up it dawned on me I was driving in a pea souper, surely that meant I could have been spared and allowed myself the indulgence of another hour in bed?

The fog/mist, whatever you want to call it, was in the bottoms, once I climbed up out of the North Tyne valley and onto the tops it was clear. I stopped and took in the view. The cheviot hills were standing proud above the white blanket, as was the highest ground in Tarset, other than that the North Tyne and Rede Valleys were totally obliterated by a mystical white blanket of fog a beautiful sight in its own but I was in for a greater pleasure. The sun was trying to rise away in the East and it was fiery red - awesome, breathtaking, beautiful, well worth stopping and appreciating mother nature at it's finest. I didn't have the camera but who needs to record a magical moment like that?

On I went, now as I was expected to be gathering sheep I truly was thinking that this was a wasted journey other than for the pleasure of seeing such a beautiful phenomenon which many would be unaware of.

I was mistaken!

It was decided to go out and gather, and yes, it was clear out on the top but as I dropped a few hundred feet I found myself in a different world, an almost surreal world, a world not at all ideal for gathering sheep.

It is so easy to lose ones sense of direction in such conditions and believe you me it is quite correct that you can find yourself walking in circles. Fortunately I was on foot, I say fortunately as I managed to direct myself into many an area which would not have been suitable for the quad bike, also I was able to use my ears, I could hear things that would have been masked by the engine of the bike. A lamb bleating was a definite clue that sheep were somewhere, but where?

Years ago I learnt (through a white out in a snow storm) that should all else fail and you truly are lost, (which even on ground you know well is easy to do) you can follow the water down. A drain will run in a certain direction and eventually lead you to a burn (stream) which will lead you to civilisation. Usually when I recount this I end up saying "and eventually you'll get to the seaside"! It will help you get your bearings though. Also take note of the direction the wind is hitting your face when you set off, or if no wind look to see which way the grasses are bent over as they usually bend from West to East (or is it the other way round?)

Fortunately the ground I was on was ring fenced, a long oblong strip of hill ground of only 1,000 acres which had a road running parallel to it and another along the bottom (horizontal I guess!) the sound of the traffic giving me a good idea as to where exactly I was, as for the sheep? Well, I made a lot of noise and the dogs bounded around in front, occasionally I got a ghostly glimpse of something sheep like and set the dogs in that direction with fingers crossed.

To be honest with you no one in their right mind would gather in such a pea-souper.

Another problem arose as we met at the bottom of the hill and found there were quite a number of sheep in front of us - thank the lord for small mercies! Our problems were just starting though, as we now had a road to cross, not just any old road either, but the A68, the main road to Scotland. The gates aren't far off a brow of a hill and we could barely see across the road as it was........ my knees were quaking I can tell you.

Phone calls back to the farm for assistance proved fruitless and so we stood and pondered. It boiled down to our hearing again. We waited until we could hear no traffic on the road at all from either direction and made a dash for it, just getting over by the skin of our teeth. 200+ sheep didn't realise just how much we wanted them to dash, the grass verges were a tasty bite and with dogs tied on make shift leads of baler twine it all looked a tad dicey for a while. Time to say Thank You to the wagon driver who eventually noticed us and an apology to him also for disrupting his difficult drive on that particular morning. I have to say that personally by this stage a stiff whisky might have gone down well!!

The outcome? I could barely believe it when the hill came into sight a couple of hours later that there were only one or two strays left out there - nothing short of a miracle in my eyes!

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Shep needs to get out more!

Now Shep has been down the local, for the first time I may add since the serious bout of whisky flu' which I suffered away back in July. I have concluded I really need to get out more. I am often told that I live in my own little world and I am beginning to believe that....

For weeks I have been in the company of sheep and like minded individuals, the crack has revolved around what we do, the trade, the weather, the future of farming, implications of electronic tagging and all manner of rural and farming crack.

But tonight I have been educated. In all honesty I thought it was one of those piss take moments. Oh how I love the cleverness of the internet! A quick google search and I found I wasn't getting the wool pulled over my eyes, oh no! what I was being told down the pub was in fact true.

Clothing for ferrets! Yep, you heard right, not just clothing I may add, all manner of things; from dresses, T-shirts, bathrobes, shampoos, medication, bedding, you name it, it seems you can get it for a ferret. There again, mebbes anyone reading this already has a life out there in the big wide world and knows such things. I will admit I knew you could get designer wear for dogs but ferrets? I ask you - has the world gone mad?

I have ferrets. have had ferrets since I was a kid. They live in a hutch and bedding consists of barley straw and shavings. They even have a collar - a battery operated tracking collar for fear they pop down a hole and don't return in a hurry, gives me a sound idea where to start digging.

Y'see my ferrets are like my dogs, they work for a living. I try to keep them comfortable and happy and when time allows we set off, ferrets and I along with a bag full of nets and we set about catching rabbits. From what I've gathered on the internet tonight this isn't normal, ferrets are in actual fact a designer accessory with designer accessories attached!

I said earlier that I'm often told I live in my own little world, well, I know I've had a couple of nips of grouse but my wits are still about me (spelling ain't that bad so must be fairly sober) and I can't help but conclude that if the 'real' world consists of people owning ferrets as a design accessory and dressing them in a wardrobe greater than my own I truly think I will remain where I am - in my 'own little world' - I feel safe here, it seems a normal world, a world where ferrets work for a living, get dropped in the water trough on a hot day in the summer for a swim, snuggle up in a deep bed of barley straw and run around on shavings, get fed the same dry food as the dogs and occasionally get a fresh rabbit for a treat. Do I really need to join the 'real' world?

Friday, 9 October 2009

Tup sales

Shep wandered away up to Lairg to a tup sale so I guess you all realised this is the time of year for buying in the 'boys'.

The tup (ram) sales start a lot earlier in the season, the main one around the borders being Kelso Tup Sale which was held on Friday 10th September. You will not find your hill breeds at Kelso, hence the earlieness of the sale. The breeds represented at Kelso Tup Sale are the more in-bye types, Suffolks, Texel, Blue de Maine and many others for by. The Blue Faced Leicester is also well represented at kelso and some on the locals from around these parts will set foot looking for a tup to cross onto their ewes.

The sale is held earlier in the season due to the fact that it is predominantly supported by the 'in - bye men' who lamb earlier than those of us around here and so need to have their stock tups bought sooner in the year.

From the middle of September onwards there have been tup sales the length and breadth of the country, every breed imaginable has been available for sale. I met my first ever Berrichon tup the other week on a farm in Cumbria, he is to be put out with mule ewes and it will be interesting to see how he crosses; what sort of lambs he leaves.

As the tup sale season draws on we get into the hill breeds with different areas of the country having different 'speciality' breeds. At Hexham (our local mart) you have the Northumberland or Hexham Type Blackfaced Tup sale on the second Monday in October (12th), should you require the scotch type blackface you need to head further North. Stirling (incorporating Perth) and Newton Stewart are past, Lanark is yet to come and there are numerous others with each centre having it's own specific type, for all the Scotch Blackface is a specific breed there are definite variations to type depending on area.

For Swaledale tups you would head West into Cumbria and the dales, as you would for Dalesbred and Rough Fell sheep also. South Country Cheviots would be found at Lockerbie, Park North Country Cheviots also but on an early day and of course the Lairg type North Country Cheviot is at Lairg! Hexham Mart does have a sale later in the season which incorporates all breeds, local breeders bring their Swaledales, Cheviots, Blackfaces alongside Bluefaced Leicesters, Suffolks, Texels and Beltex.

So not only are farmers and shepherds busy selling their breeding sheep at the moment they are also seeking the sires, which may involve many hours travelling to seek the 'type' required. I know of three farmers who travelled to Lairg and back in one day - 12hours travelling with a tup sale thrown in, between them they brought seven tups back to Northumberland!!

Since 2001 anything you bring onto the holding puts you under a six day standstill, actually it's not just anything you buy, should you take stock to auction and not happy with the trade end up bringing them home you find you're unable to move stock off that holding for a further 6 days. This is an absolute nightmare as specific sales are on specific days and a sale waits for no one.

The back end sales are when sheep farmers see their returns, they have invested in their sheep for a year and reap the financial rewards through the 2-3 hectic months which run prior to winter. There are very few businesses which receive little income for three quarters of the year and then in the quarter when they can earn themselves some money find they have to be careful not to get tied up with the six day standstill rule.

Fortunately there are ways around the problem, some farmers have ground beyond the farm which comes under a different holding number and can use this ground for security under the six day rule, also isolation units are permitted if licenced by a vet. The whole idea is to prevent the spread of disease, such as foot and mouth, understandable when sheep can travel the length and breadth of the countryside, however, at times one can't help but think it is bureaucracy gone mad.

Many of the Tarset Farmers are heading into Scotland this year for their stock sires. The Hexham type Blackface has been getting a slating from many over the past couple of years, the breed does have a small gene pool, also it is a larger cousin to the Scotch type, coupled with more wool.

Size takes feeding. Now don't get me wrong, you need a sheep with a good carcase but the longer Hexham type is going out of fashion at the moment, they don't seem to thrive right on some of this poorer ground and allegedly aren't always crossing true; You buy the type of tup you like, the type you have in your minds eye that you would wish your ewe flock to look like, you then find that this tup doesn't leave behind many lambs resembling him - he's not crossing true - a huge disappointment and one not easily rectified.

Then there is the wool issue. Barer skinned sheep can be found at Hexham and a decent purl (curl in the wool) is still seen as important for the breeding of mule ewe lambs but there are still a number of heavier skinned sheep coming through the ring at Hexham and with the wet winters we have been seeing recently it is commonly thought that the sheep are hindered by carrying heavy wet fleeces around and after all the wool doesn't have the value off the sheep's back that it used to have.

The 'scotch' men have put alot of effort into their sheep of later years. They used to be renowned for having black and white faces with straighter, hairier wool. These changed almost overnight, with consensus of opinion being that the Swaledale was put through them, producing a sheep more favourable to the fashions liked in this area. Darker, cleaner haired sheep with a weatherproof but purly skin, a good depth of carcase with out too much length, although having said that they have also put length into their sheep with some of them now resembling Dougal from the 'Magic Roundabout'!!

So, we'll wait and see what the tup sales have to offer, the following week will be a busy one. I myself hope to be able to attend Lanark lamb sale on 16th, curiosity can be a killer!! Hopefully, I'll be able to report and let you all know what breeds of tup have come into the area this year

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Store lambs

Shep had a query lately. What is a store lamb?

Well, it's not just store lambs, there are store sheep and store cattle. Generally anything that is sold STORE is basically NOT FAT.

Store sales are a weekly event and there are buyers who only buy store animals and finish them. In other words by whatever means they choose they get those animals fat and then sell them for slaughter.

Hill farms don't always have the ground to get their stock finished (fattened) many lambs come off their mothers fat and go away for slaughter as such but there are those which haven't got plenty of cover on their backs and they need a kinder bite. Fogs (as explained in a past blog)are useful for putting fettle on the sheep but it all depends on how many you have which need to be finished off as grass can soon disappear if there are many hungry mouths. Also the growing season is shorter on these higher, harder farms.

Those buying out of the store can often be arable men, needing something to eat the stubble but not wishing to have sheep full time, dairy men also buy in stores as their fields are 'redundant' in the winter months. Some have sheds and put the stock inside and fatten on cake, others may have troughs outdoors and also feed cake.

The store buyers are an important link, especially for hill farming. The store trade was poor last back end, however, the fat price lifted in February and those who had bought store lambs would see a good return, therefore they are prepared to pay more this year. As is always the case in farming, if trade is good then the money goes round.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Cattle - who'd have them?

'Where there's live ones there's dead ones', a saying known only too well in the farming sector which covers life in general. The recent accident with a heifer and a cattle grid got Shep on thinking.......... Oh, oh! That's often dangerous!

Why keep cattle?

They are big and heavy which can cause soft ground to be plunged up, they can cause physical grief to those whom work with them, believe you me when they stand on your foot you know about it and a kick has dropped many a man to his knees, so why on earth bother with them?

Basically they complement the grazing for sheep. Cattle have a different grazing pattern and prefer longer grass to sheep which enables the grass to be kept at a consistent length for the sheep to graze. Also cattle are worth a fair bit of money, there again, the losses are greater should you have one die on you.

Generally they are less time consuming than sheep. Sheep are forever coming into the pens for something or other, whereas cattle seem to need less doing to them, except for winter that is when they are in sheds and need feeding daily and bedding regularly. Calving can go by without too much incident or it can be a nightmare, now a sheep can be caught out in the open and wrestled to the ground to assist it to lamb, not quite so easy with cows!

They are an expensive commodity to look after though, most of the hay and silage made during the summer is needed for the cattle and then there is the bedding to buy in too. However, the returns on the finished article are high, so long as not too many losses are incurred.

But why keep them? It pays in farming not to have all your eggs in one basket, quite frankly over the last few years sheep trade has been dreadful, fortunately the cattle trade has helped balance the books. So not only do they complement the sheep grazing, you also have something to fall back on should sheep trade take a hammering and lets face it, we all like a bit of beef for Sunday dinner.

At what cost? The crack (gossip) at the mart the other day was of yet another farmer in Northumberland coming to grief from cattle, the air ambulance was involved, the condition of the guy in question is unknown at the moment, there's no doubt about it though he'll be very sore.

So should we get rid of cattle all together? Where would you end with that logic? A walker was once suspected of being killed by tups in a field, does that mean we should get rid of all sheep too? There is danger around every corner, working with livestock can be unpredictable you need to keep your wits about you, show common sense and often have good luck on your side. There are accidents on farms but then we have very few (if any) accidents involving pedestrians and motor vehicles in this area, London will probably have a high number of pedestrian injuries but no livestock related injuries.......... so where would you stop?

I'm a shepherd and although I have a huge soft spot for the good old Galloway which I was fortunate to work with for many a year I would choose sheep over cattle any day. Having said that I wouldn't like to see the countryside devoid of cattle, they have their uses, help the finances, taste good and I do like milk on my cereal. They are also great characters which are easily recognisable and due to the fact they have a longer life span than a sheep almost become one of the family (okay, not quite but I'm sure you get the gist!)Life without cattle would be miserable.

I can't help think that less staff on farms and an average age of around about 60 for a farmer are all contributory factors towards the accidents which happen. Poor financial returns on farming over past years may also contribute due to maintenance of fences, buildings etc being kept to an absolute minimum. Farmers are realistic, have money will spend, don't have money and you tighten your belt.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Hexham Draft Ewe Sale

Fresh from the trip to Lairg, Shep hit Northumberland soil just in time to get to the draft ewe sale at Hexham. The hill breeding sale. A highlight of the year at Bellingham Auction Mart when all the 'retired' ewes are brought down off the hills to be sold and spend the last of their breeding days on kinder, grassier ground in-bye.

Although there is no longer a Bellingham Mart the sale is held at Hexham and Shep never misses it.

A female breeding sale of hill sheep, predominantly Blackfaces with a good representation of Swaledales and a handful of Cheviots. The ewes are drafted off the hills as previously explained and sold at 5 or 6 year old. They must have a full mouth to be sold as fully warranted, that means all eight front teeth must still be in place and have a hold, they must also be sound of the bag (udder). Occasionally it will be put out that 'there are a couple with a side tooth out'; it pays to be honest and a side tooth is no great loss.

Numbers are declining, there were many farm names missing off the catalogue from a few years back, whether they are selling elsewhere or a change of farm policy I don't know but they were missing. Which possibly helped the trade which was strong, top price paid being £95 and many doubling the price they received last year.

The trade will actually have been helped by the strength in the fat ring. Fat sheep are realising good money and when farmers have it they will spend it. The mule ewe lamb trade has also been bouyant and as many of these sheep will be put to the Blue faced leicester tup to breed the mule lamb then again that will have helped the trade. About time too, the sheep industry has seen a few too many lean years of late with many tenant farmers hanging on by the skin of their teeth. Lets just hope the prices haven't risen too much and too quickly.

Gimmers were a roaring trade, these are usually the farmers second draw lambs from last year. After keeping his replacement ewe lambs he'll keep the best of the remainder of the ewe lambs and let them run on with the intention of selling them the following back end as gimmers. One lot of gimmers which Shep had dressed were sold last year for just forty odd pounds, the price you'd expect for a lamb, however the equivalent this year realised £106 - a vast improvement.

Of the 35 pens of gimmers forward 25 made £100+, the top price being £160 from four different farms. Gimmers of course have their full breeding lives ahead of them and are generally a good investment. I don't know that I have ever known the trade to be quite so high, other than in 2002 when those who had been killed out in 2001 were desperate to replace their sheep with good types.

Had we still been at Bellingham Mart the 'Nappers' would have been full to overflowing on the night, with glasses raised, crack flowing and a good sing song for bye. However those days are past and after Hexham ewe sale everyone trundled off in their own directions, home in time for tea and stock looked before bed. Not only is their a decline in sheep being sold but also a noticeable decline in the sociable aspect of these sheep gatherings.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Busmans Holiday ( Lairg Tup Sale)

Shep found herself up in Lairg at the start of the week. A trip which had been arranged for quite a while and which the week previous seemed unlikely to take place, however, at the eleventh hour there was light at the end of the tunnel and off to Lairg I headed.

Why Lairg? 300 miles from home and six hours travelling, for what? A holiday? Not quite, or at least not the sort of holiday many would envisage. No, I headed off for a tup (ram) sale. Hill type North Country Cheviots to be precise, or the 'Lairg type Cheviot'

Curiosity regarding the breed and its characteristics drew me up there along with the fact that Lairg auction is one of the few traditional auction sites remaining in our country today. No concrete and clanging of metal gates, no roofing over the pens - two wooden auction rings, grass pens and wooden gates and I may add as it was inclement weather there were clarts (mud) under foot! Just like the good old days when Bellingham Mart existed. A traditional, homely place full of character and warmth, friendly and vibrant.
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It was a long way to go to bump into neighbours, Northumberland was well represented as was the whole country with a contingent from Wales as well as further south. Everyone is looking to produce a better class of store/fat lamb from their ewes and there is no doubt about it these sheep have carcase and will undoubtedly be hardy individuals. Most are sold at 2 or 3 shear (years old) enabling them to mature naturally, not fed on pounds of cake to reach the size, therefore they ought not to melt when set out with ewes on the hard hill ground.

I was impressed with the breed on a whole although there did seem to be a variety of type. Trade was brisk with the average being £150 up on the year. A new breed record was set with a three shear from Badenloch realising £11,000 (he's pictured below)

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There are two auction rings at Lairg and whilst the tups were being sold in one the female breeding sheep were going under the hammer in the other. Ewes were also a flying trade, the sheep pictured below were off Armadale, Thurso and realsied £110 (each), quite a price for a draft ewe nearing the end of her days, being an older sheep she'll be expected to produce twins and hopefully have a further two years breeding in her. The fat trade is so good at the moment that these big heavy ewes are most likely worth £60 just to kill so that puts a good bottom in the market. These particular ewes were outstanding, hence the reason I followed them through the ring and even at the price they made you would be pleased to take them home.
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All in all it was a most enjoyable and educational experience, I was relieved that I managed to get and I'm sure sleeping most of the way there and back helped the journey pass quickly ( obviously I wasn't driving, there was a car full of us!)

'That's Life'

Farmers, shepherds and stocks men get accustomed to life's highs and lows. Working with the unpredictability of the weather, stock, machinery, trade and the government day in day out hardens them to a degree.

Having said that they care, that's why they do the job they do, it's in their hearts. There'll be the shrug of the shoulders and the utterance 'that's life' when things go wrong but there'll often be a hurt, unseen to the outside world but there all the same which brings an unspoken understanding amongst those that know and deal with the same 'problems' day in, day out.

A phone call to a farmer last night brought about one of those moments, as when someone is bereaved, words fail, nothing can be said to make things any better. The loss is felt.

An explanation as to why fire engines were in the district - a cow in a cattle grid

A calving heifer (first time calver/young cow) no less, experiencing difficulties, so brought off the herd along with another for company to be driven to the steading with the intention of assisting the birth and having a healthy cow and calf as a result. If only that simple.

A lack of staff on farms makes every task more difficult, the farmer is dealing with an unpredictable cow alone. The gate beside the cattle grid is open but she spooks and for all her pal walks through, she decides to jump the cattle grid. The result? Not a pretty one.

On the bright side the calf was brought into this world alive, a small consolation to a man who cares. There is the financial loss, a heifer worth at least £1,000, vets bills, call out for emergency services?, dead cart to pay, powdered colostrum and calf milk to buy. Painful to the pocket but not what is causing the hurt that is felt.

Those who work the land are a tough hardy breed, resilient, hard working, committed and conscientious, they will shrug their shoulders and say 'that's life' but remember - they care.