How a chance encounter led to a lifetime as one of Yorkshire's leading Charollais sheep breeders

When a North Yorkshire farmer’s son took on his first Charollais tup back in 1979, little did he know that it was to be the start of a career in the breed that would see he and his wife Judith win a breed championship at the Great Yorkshire Show and be presented to the Queen.

Thomas Hunter with one of his champion sheep

Thomas Hunter was born at Hold Cauldron, the site of an old mill, where his parents Simon and Valerie milked 20-25 Friesian dairy cows before moving on to Normanby Grange around the back of Flamingo Land when he was 14.

It was at Normanby that Thomas had his introduction to sheep, as the farm was a mix of a commercial flock of Suffolk-cross and corn.

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Thomas said it was a visit to a farm at Coulton in Hovingham that brought about his interest in the Charollais, but that initially he wasn’t impressed by what he saw.

Thomas and Judith with children Kerry and Simon

“I half-knew this chap who was a university lecturer up at Newcastle. I was looking at his Charollais tup and to be honest I didn’t think much to him, but the chap insisted I take him home and use him on our flock at Normanby. This was just at the time when Charollais were coming into the country.

“We ran him on Dad’s farm putting him to our Suffolk-cross ewes alongside our Texel tups and I altered my opinion. The Charollais crossbreds were putting on the weight and getting away faster than the Texels.

“That’s when Judith and I decided we were going to breed our own, with Mum and Dad coming in with us.

“Our first pedigree ewes were three from breeder Alan Barnes of Cowden in Lancashire who was having a dispersal sale. They were some of his oldest ewes. He had them tupped for ‘luck’ with a tup that had won at the Royal Highland Show. That’s when we joined the British Charollais Sheep Society.”

Thomas and Judith didn’t have the best of starts with their pedigree lambing. One of the three ewes didn’t lamb, but one had a pair of gimmers and they attended their first show - Ryedale - in 1984. Thomas said their introduction was a learning curve.

“We took just one of the two gimmers and the judge said he wouldn’t judge it because it wasn’t tattooed, which they had to be at that time. I hadn’t thought that much of our chances with it but one of our fellow breeders Charles Marwood encouraged the judge to judge it anyway.

“The judge gave us second prize, but that wasn’t the end of it. He then offered us £1,000 for it.”

Thomas and Judith were on their way to a showing career that now sees them regularly exhibiting at the Great Yorkshire Show and several others in North and East Yorkshire every year.

“That first pedigree gimmer lamb never bred a thing, but her sister who was a dipped-back woolly thing was a really good breeder. We then began building up what is known today as our Skelton Whin flock by keeping all females for a year or two.”

Thomas and Judith married in 1984 and lived in Kirkbymoorside. Thomas had followed his father in working for BATA at Amotherby, which is where Judith lived from being 11 years old, after having moved from Wombleton.

Thomas worked for BATA for 47 years before retiring in January of this year and Judith used to work on farms as well as in insurance for Seekings & Wardle.

The couple moved to New Town Farm in Hunmanby in 1989, also with Thomas’s parents, where they took on a 25-acre farm that also sees them renting another 40 acres. They started their own family, with son Simon and daughter Kerry, and are soon to enjoy the arrival of the next generation with both Simon’s partner, Gaby, and Kerry expecting.

Thomas said their concentration on breeding stock rather than a combination of commercial and pedigree sheep came about due to a Ministry of Agriculture representative explaining that they couldn’t run both non-MV accredited and MV-accredited on the farm.

“We were only in the Charollais breed at the time and we took the decision to stick with pedigrees rather than commercials. We’ve now been Beltex breeders for many years. It was when we saw them at North Sheep, held at Whinfell Farm in Penrith, that we decided to have a crack at another breed.

“For us it is all about breeding quality tups for both pedigree and commercial flocks. We had great help in getting into the Beltex through David and Richard Findlay and Martin Brown.

“We now have 90 Charollais ewes and 45 Beltex ewes. We put 70 of the Charollais to a pedigree Charollais tup or use AI and the other 20 we cross with a Beltex tup to produce quality crossbreds.”

Thomas and Judith’s proudest moment in the sheep ring at shows was when their tup was champion male and champion Charollais at the Great Yorkshire Show when they were presented to the Queen in 2009.

Thomas said they also had the female champion six years ago with a gimmer shearling.

“We sold our breed champion at Harrogate to the judge, who bought a half-share in him for £1,200, with us retaining a half-share. The judge of our female champion years later bought her. She bred an incredible tup that we have now.”

The Hunters made a successful return to the show ring this year at Driffield last month where they had the Beltex breed champion with a ewe, as well as winning four out of five classes; and Charollais reserve champion with a gimmer lamb.

Thomas said they have handed over the showing baton to the next generation.

“Our son Simon and son-in-law Ryan now do most of the showing. Simon trims them up ready for show. It was good to be back showing and we are hoping to attend Wensleydale Show and Masham Sheep Fair.”