Farm of the Week: Swaledale breeder John Bland prepares for sales season

John Bland, the chairman of Moorcock Show, with a Swaledale ewe he is showing at this year's event in Mossdale near Hawes tomorrow. Picture: Gary Longbottom
John Bland, the chairman of Moorcock Show, with a Swaledale ewe he is showing at this year's event in Mossdale near Hawes tomorrow. Picture: Gary Longbottom
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WHILE THIS week’s footballing soap opera that is the transfer window deadline turned out to be a damp squib, the breeding sheep world, with its annual sales starting in the coming weeks and lasting until the end of October, is hoping that its window will offset some of this year’s poor fat lamb prices.

Agricultural shows at this time of year up in the Dales provide the ideal opportunity for breeders to put their transfer-listed talent in the shop window and for some they come no more important than Moorcock Show held four miles out of Hawes.

While the show has embraced other breeds, notably Mule, Blue Faced Leicester, Rough Fell and Texel; and it has an extensive craft marquee plus Hawes Brass Band for the general public, this really is an event that sets up the breeding sheep sale season ahead. It’s the equivalent of Premier League clubs playing their transfer listed players for half a dozen matches prior to the window closing.

John Bland of Thwaite Bridge House, just a stone’s throw from the showfield, is not just chairman of the show, he’s also a respected pedigree Swaledale breeder. He’s had first prizes at this most traditional of sheep shows in the 17 years he’s competed, but not yet a supreme champion. That takes some doing around here.

John says: “We’ve done quite well over the years. Moorcock and also Muker shows are two of the major Swaledale shows in the autumn. The people who come are top breeders and that means it’s almost like a trade fair as we’re all keen to advertise our best sheep.”

This year has proved extremely challenging for sheep farmers with the price of lambs plummeting. John explains how Moorcock Show can help some end the year on a much higher note.

“Everyone has financial commitments with their flocks and the current price of lambs in the market has affected us all this year. The only ways in which you can lessen the impact of what is happening at the moment, where prices are about £15-£25 per head down on last year, is to cut your costs where you can, but you can only cut things so much. For many of us the season ahead gives the hope that one of our top rams or breeding ewes will attract a big price at the breed sales.”

John, who was born in Darwen near Blackburn in Lancashire moved his family north from Derbyshire to Thwaite Bridge two years ago. He still has the tenanted farm in Crowden, near Glossop where he has 800 predominantly pure Swaledale breeding ewes and a few that have been put to the Blue Faced Leicester.

Thwaite Bridge runs to 400 acres and he has 250 Swaledale ewes all bred pure, plus four suckler cows that may be increased to between 10-15 to provide pasture topping for the sward, which in turn provides a more palatable product for the sheep.

“We bought this place about five years ago and there were a few reasons why. Firstly it’s a great place to bring up a family and my wife Stephanie and our children Madeline (11), Louis (nine) and George (four) love it here. Secondly we bought this farm, which we’d always wanted to do as wherever I’ve been before either on my own or with my parents we had always tenanted; and thirdly sheep breeding has always been my passion and to be breeding Swaledales in their heartland is a great thing to do. The pressure is on you pedigree-wise on a farm of this size but we’re getting there and wherever we show or sell we try our level best to be competitive.

“Our main business is to breed tups and breeding sheep to sell. If we have a surplus then any males we don’t consider good enough are sold through the fat ring at Hawes livestock market just down the road. As well as the acreage we own there is also 200 acres of moorland that we rent and use in the summer. We’re in the Swaledale B district and sell our tups and breeding sheep at Hawes with ewes also going to Skipton.

“The highest priced ram we’ve ever sold was one at £26,000 a couple of years ago. We’ve had a few others in five figures. If you don’t attract good prices it can restrict the progress of your flock because you then can’t afford to buy other quality rams that you may have wanted.”

John, in common with most Swaledale breeders, looks to breed his own replacements in order to maintain the quality of his flock.

“We sell most of our ewes as three-crop ewes and aim to keep the best breeding rams and females for as long as we can while also providing the right kind of stock that fetches a good price in the annual breed sales. That’s where Moorcock Show helps because it puts what you have right there in front of your peers and hopefully makes others want what you’ve bred.”

The family name of Bland is well-known in Swaledale and Mule circles as John’s brother Andrew breeds Mules and has pedigree Swaledales on another farm in Derbyshire and his other brother Neil, a land agent also had them before retiring; but during the family’s Lancastrian days when he was a teenager his father had pedigree Gritstones. One of John’s earliest influences towards Swaledales was when he worked for one of Derbyshire’s best-known Swaledale breeders Paul Hallam.

The current sheep price isn’t John’s only concern. The recent changes to countryside stewardship schemes look set to make next year even more challenging.

“Our current Entry Level stewardship scheme runs out here next year and the new proposed scheme doesn’t look as though it will be worth us bothering with. It looks like we’re just going to have to farm that bit harder.”

Tomorrow though John’s attention will be focussed not on next year but on the show and how it might help him in the coming weeks. Moorcock Show takes place in Mossdale just off the A684 tomorrow.