An early lambing season makes for a happy family

Newborn Charollais lambs at Foulrice near Whenby with some of the Marwood Family, Charles (right), his son Stephen (holding the lamb) and grandsons Edward, aged seven, and Tommy, four.
Newborn Charollais lambs at Foulrice near Whenby with some of the Marwood Family, Charles (right), his son Stephen (holding the lamb) and grandsons Edward, aged seven, and Tommy, four.
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Everyone has their breaking point, that time when enough really is enough and some years ago renowned Charollais sheep breeder Charles Marwood of Foulrice, near Whenby found the sharper end of his wife Valerie’s tongue after 18 ewes lambed on Christmas Day.

Early lambing around December and the New Year has long played an important role in the sheep world but Charles was left in no doubt that if the situation happened again in future he would be spending that day on his own.

Some of the newborn Charollais lambs at the Marwood Farm at Foulrice near Whenby.

Some of the newborn Charollais lambs at the Marwood Farm at Foulrice near Whenby.

“That was one of the reasons we shifted our early lambing to a little earlier,” says Charles.

“It wasn’t fair on Valerie or the rest of the family when everyone is supposed to be together having a good time, but it wasn’t the only reason.”

Early lambing flocks provide breeders with lambs for the Easter market in the hope of attracting premium prices with there being less young stock coming to market rather than later in the year once the greater proliferation of spring lambs come on stream.

If you are also a successful show stockman it is highly likely you will have an early lambing flock too in order that your lambs when shown during summer compete on size with those born at the similar time.

Charles and Valerie made the decision to start an early lambing flock at the same time as they bought their first Charollais in 1982.

“We wanted to produce good carcase sheep as I have always felt that if you are producing something at the better end of the market even in a more difficult trade you will still have a market.

“The Charollais breed is known for its easy lambing quality and there’s enough work on at lambing time so if you have ewes that lamb easily and their lambs get up and are vigorous and full of life it helps no end.

“The second thing you’re looking at is fast growth and again this is where the breed ticks another important box.

“We now lamb around 300 ewes between December 1-10 and this year we have had around 500 lambs. That’s a little down on the number of lambs we had this time last year, but that’s the vagaries of sheep farming.

“We’ve done everything the same. The reason why our lambing takes place over a tighter period than our other flock of ewes that will lamb in March is that all of the early lambing flock is AI’d (artifically inseminated) over a two-day period.

“Lambing in December sees us cull very hard in our selection and that means any lambs we don’t want as ram lambs or to retain as ewe lambs for replacements can get away on the Easter market.

“Last year’s December lambs saw us keep half and send the others to markets at Thirsk, Skipton and Bentham. The spring lamb market is finite and if it is oversupplied then the rules of supply and demand act against you so we try to spread them about.”

Charles’ reputation in the show ring is legendary with tremendous achievements at the Great Yorkshire Show, breed sales and flock competitions but it is business that comes first and December lambing is very much also about producing stock that will sell well.

“We want ram lambs to sell that will work well in July. You can have lambs born in January that will work well at that time too but you then have to move them along a little faster and as a result of doing that you can sometimes run into problems because if they have been bulked out too quickly they can soon lose body condition once put to work. That’s why we have our early lambs at the start of December. That way the ram lambs can grow steadily away at an easy rate.

“Because our ram lambs are born when they are it means they are bigger than others when it comes to competing at shows and the premier Charollais breed sale at the beginning of July just before the Great Yorkshire Show where we take a handful of ram lambs and shearling rams.

“If your lambs are smaller than anyone else’s the judges tend not to take as much notice. It is what fills the eye and has that bit extra to catch the buyer’s eye that I am looking for.”

Charles’ ewe lambs from last December recently finished first place in the Charollais breed’s North of England flock competition having previously been awarded the championship for the Yorkshire and Cleveland area.

Last year Charles won the highly prestigious overall interbreed title at the Great Yorkshire Show in Harrogate with a stock ram and for the past three years he has had the male champion Charollais.

In 2015 he entered four shows and won every interbreed title.

“I have always felt that you only get out what you put in and that’s why we have kept with Charollais and our early lambing flock rather than trying to keep other breeds too.

“It might not be the same for everybody but I find that I keep my focus this way – and make sure that we don’t have any lambs born on Christmas Day!”

Charles farms with his eldest son Stephen on the farm at Foulrice, in the Hambleton district of North Yorkshire, that runs to around 250 acres. The farmland has belonged to Charles and his brother David until David retired in recent years.