Meet the 'accidental' sheep farmers near Staithes

Hot air ballooning, camel racing in Dubai and endurance riding with Highland ponies are just three of the varied activities a married couple of veterinarians have either undertaken or been involved with during the past 30-plus years.

Laura-Jane and Ed Macholc “pronounced like a Scotsman on his holidays – Mac Hols”, says Laura-Jane, eventually settled their wanderlust when purchasing The Granary in the tiny hamlet of Borrowby, perched above Borrowby Dale just a mile and a half from Staithes with the sea very much in view.

“We came up here in 1989 and bought The Granary in 1990,” says Laura-Jane. “At the time it had just one acre of land. I’m now retired from the veterinary profession, but Ed is still involved and has recently taken on a three-days per week post with Beck’s in Whitby.

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“We came north to work together at the Rosslyn practice in Linthorpe, Middlesbrough, which we ran for a number of years having taken it over when the owner wanted to leave.”

The couple’s main passion is Highland ponies and particularly endurance riding averaging around 300 to 400 kilometres of riding per year. The single acre they had acquired allowed them to keep two, one each. When the opportunity presented itself to purchase a further 10 acres at the other end of the hamlet, the other end being no more than 100 to 150 yards away – they took it up.

“Within days of signing the contract in 2003 another 15 acres came up for sale adjoining us, so we split it with our neighbours with them taking the bottom half and us the top half. Suddenly we had gone from one to 18 acres and we needed something to tidy the land up as Highland ponies are a bit picky and will only eat the grass.”

That’s when the Macholcs became sheep farmers and today they have a flock of around 70 pedigree Hebrideans. They have become part of the agricultural show scene but providing an income of any great sum is another matter.

“It’s dubious,” says Ed, when I ask whether the sheep make a profitable contribution, “but they certainly help us with maintaining the land.”

Laura-Jane and Ed would be the first to say they are not farmers in the sense of having a significant acreage, but they are passionate about the breed and as such they are very much farmers, albeit on a small scale, with a duty of care for their livestock and have developed a reputation with the Hebs over the past 14 years.

“In pure monetary terms they don’t pay but the saving on someone coming to have to spray the fields means they are very worthwhile – and we get to agricultural shows, getting in at a good price because of showing them, and we have our own produce to eat too.

“I’d wanted black sheep rather than white because I’d just fancied us having black sheep.”

Their first foray into purchasing Hebs, as they are referred to, was from a farm in Roxby, the next village. Their purchase was, unbeknown to them at the time, to change their lives.

“We had no intention of becoming breeders. We had decided to buy seven sheep to be our tidy up operation. The sheep were duly delivered. We called them the Magnificent Seven. We had a tup, two ewe lambs and four wethers. Next, we had lambs, but then we realised they were non-registered and we couldn’t register them.

“We weren’t able to show them either, which by now we were interested in, having originally shown our Highland ponies at Hinderwell, Ryedale, Danby and Egton.

“I’d always wanted to show at the Great Yorkshire Show,” says Laura-Jane. “I’d originally intended that would be with the Highland ponies, but the Hebs seemed a better proposition logistically, except we now needed registered pedigree stock, so we purchased our first pedigree Hebs in 2005 and became a registered Hebridean flock with our first registerable ewe lambs born that year.

“We still have two of those first ewe lambs and one produced a ewe lamb this year at 14 years of age and raised it herself. We didn’t intend her to be in-lamb but where there’s a ewe there’s a way.

“The first show we attended with the Hebs was ten years ago at Hinderwell where we picked up a third-place rosette. We tried Ryedale a couple of years later and had reserve champion in the primitive classes. Six years ago we finally made it to Harrogate and the Great Yorkshire Show.

“We hadn’t a clue about how everything functioned when you let your sheep free in the ring, particularly with how you catch your little darlings, but we soon found out everyone helps everyone.

“We were absolutely hooked because that first year saw us get a second in the ram lamb class and a third in the ewe lamb class. We were very fortunate as a number of respected breeders couldn’t take part for various reasons that year. We’ve never done as well since, but we had a third and fourth last year, and a fifth and sixth this year in much bigger classes.

“Lambing starts late March. We currently have 30 pedigree ewes with a very good lambing percentage of around 160. The ewes are very milky and have superb little udders. We don’t put them all to the tup each year. We tend to rotate. For this year’s lamb crop we put just over 20 to a couple of tups.”

Laura-Jane and Ed’s Ansgiobal flock, so named as it is the Gaelic name for granary, is now in a fully accredited hogget scheme and as such they may approach quality butchers.

Hebridean lamb is in demand in top London and Edinburgh restaurants and won a Taste of Britain Award recently.