Keith Stones is the fifth generation to farm at Nun Cote Nook Farm in Marrick, Swaledale, where he farms in partnership with his wife Elaine, who runs a tearoom that is very popular with walkers, particularly those on the Coast to Coast Walk from St Bees in Cumbria to Robin Hood’s Bay.
The Stones family has earned an enviable reputation for the quality of their North Country Cheviot ewes. Keith said they had become the cornerstone of his farm operation since starting out in his own right in November 1991.
“I’d worked for my uncle for about 10 years. When he retired and I took on the farm, suddenly having bills to pay, it made me realise that I had to make it stack up financially.
“He’d had a few North Country Cheviots and I knew they had potential. They were producing a lot higher-value lambs than the other sheep we had on the farm and you didn’t need to be a genius to work out they were the way to go, so we expanded their numbers.
“We got a tup or two and pushed on down the registered pedigree line. The Cheviot has the best carcase of any hill breed. It’s streets ahead of the rest, very long, carries loads of flesh without excessive fat and has wonderful mothering ability. It also has a white head and they are in demand from butchers.”
Keith said he has always been aware of the limitations that Nun Cote Nook’s acreage and its geography brings about, which limits the amount of stock he can keep, which is why he went more down the production of breeding stock route.
“We don’t have enough of our own land to make the unit viable any other way. We own 200 acres, which is the nucleus of the farm, and rent another 100 from a neighbour, plus we have quite a few bits of land around here and down near Northallerton.
“Our livestock numbers currently run to 90 head of suckler cows and around 450-500 breeding ewes. The farm stands at 1,000 feet above sea level on a bleak North East-facing hill where we get 70mph breezes on a good day.
“We lamb inside, predominantly in April, but they have to go out at some point and the art at that time is keeping as many lambs alive as possible. That’s where the Cheviots’ renowned hardiness and excellent mothering skills come in. It’s also when our dry stone walls are very precious to them as shelter.”
Nun Cote Nook’s livestock operation is all about keeping the farm viable and Keith said quality over quantity has always been his key.
“To keep it viable we would rather produce high-quality breeding sheep and high-value suckler calves. We used to finish a lot of cattle when the subsidy system was based on headage payments. At that time, it paid to have an extensive system on the hills but the change to area payments made us struggle as we haven’t a large acreage. We get very little subsidy.
“That’s why if I keep my females right we will have a future. I’m a breeder of quality female Cheviots that will go into other flocks and we’ve held the world record twice for the highest-priced female Cheviot. As an Englishman doing that with a Scottish breed makes me very proud.
“We go up to Longtown and Lockerbie livestock markets. Lockerbie is our main selling place where the cream of the cream of the Cheviots is sold. I’m happy to rub shoulders with those great breeders.
“We sold at 18 livestock markets last year throughout England and Wales, just a few at each to show the quality we produce.”
Attending the summer agricultural shows is another aspect that Keith understands is important to keep up profile and maintain reputation. Keith said that the next generation at Nun Cote Nook now has this in hand.
“We used to do a lot of showing and I loved every minute of it, but then pulled back a bit as it was taking over our lives. Now our two daughters, Annie and Mary, have taken over showing the sheep and our son Tommy’s girlfriend Grace has started showing the cattle with the calves.
“A couple of years ago the girls went down to Ryedale Show while Elaine and I were away. They had a champion and reserve champion and pointed out they had managed perfectly well without Dad!
“It’s how it should be. We need young people in the industry and we need their usage of new technologies that are now important to help push the business.”
Keith’s sheep enterprise includes 200-250 registered North Country Cheviot breeding ewes and around 100 purebred Texels. Keith said the rest are mainly North Country Cheviot Mules that are put to the Texel producing store lambs and fat lambs to start being sold in late July and early August mainly through Darlington livestock market.
Nun Cote Nook’s suckler herd is made up of variations between British Blue and Limousin crossed cows. Keith said he currently has three Limmie bulls and two Blue bulls.
“We calve in February/March and sell the calves at between seven to eight months at Darlington. We try to produce good show calves. It’s all about quality.”
Keith said his quality control also extends to Elaine’s tearoom.
“We have a steady stream of walkers all summer, but someone has to check if Elaine’s chocolate fudge cakes, cream cakes, cheesecakes and lemon meringues are constantly up to scratch. It’s a dirty job, of course, but somebody’s got to do it.”
Keith and Elaine have three sons and two daughters. Ben, the eldest, is a web designer. The others - Tommy, Jack, Annie and Mary - all help out on the farm and have other jobs.
“We are definitely a family farm with Elaine and I the backbone. I’m all for them having the chance to push the business forward.”