Meet the North Yorkshire dynasty who are champion Masham sheep breeders - with their wool making a comeback

It has been a momentous year for one of the longest serving and best known Masham sheep breeding families in North Yorkshire.

Chris and Amandas Hargreaves are a leading Masham sheep breeding duo
Chris and Amandas Hargreaves are a leading Masham sheep breeding duo

The Douthwaites of High Snape Farm in Kirkby Overblow have earned a sizeable reputation in the crossbreed brought about from a Teeswater ram and a Dalesbred ewe, which was once the livestock markets’ favourite until it was usurped by the Mule.

Chris Douthwaite said that this year’s Masham prices, on the back of a buoyant lamb market, have seen a return to form for the breed.

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“Trade has been very good this year. Mashams have averaged over £200 and we’ve been really pleased with that. It’s the first year they have ever made more than the Mules. Obviously, there isn’t the same volume of Mashams to Mules but it is encouraging and more are coming back to the Masham.

“We have 500 Mules and 100 Mashams because of the demand there is these days, but we find that the Masham will last longer than a Mule. The Mashams seem to grind their teeth down and keep them while the Mules’ teeth grow long and fall out.”

Chris and his daughter Amanda (Burgess) have been the public face of the farm’s Mashams through being seen in the sheep pens and show rings for many years.

This year their Mashams have excelled and Amanda said it has been their best year ever.

“At the Great Yorkshire Show in July we won every class we entered whether a single sheep, pairs or commercial.

“We had the breed champion with a shearling ewe and the Wool on the Hoof champion. We then went on to take the Interbreed overall commercial champion, which was unbelievable because we normally come out behind the Mule. Taking the commercial champion was what made it the best ever.”

Amanda said that hopefully the past few years have seen her emerge a little more from having felt as though she had been living in her dad’s shadow.

“Dad is really very well respected in the Masham breed and that brings a kind of invisible pressure sometimes, but in recent times I was asked to judge at the Masham Sheep Breeders Association’s gimmer lamb sale, I won the ladies section and then took the overall breeders title for most points the same year and won a lot of local shows in 2019.

“That same year I was voted on to the breed committee, then I became vice chairman last year and in April this year I was voted on as chairman.”

It has been a whirlwind past six months for Amanda as she has also given birth to her daughter Emilia Evelyn.

Amanda said that by taking on responsibility for judging, becoming chairman of the Masham Sheep Breeders Association and doing so well at Harrogate, she is in a different position to the many years of being seen as purely the daughter showing her dad’s sheep.

“There is more public speaking involved. You have to say more and do more. I suppose I’m now in a way making a rod for my own back.

“We’ll see how good I am or not and if I get thrown off next year because they’ve all decided I’m rubbish at it.

“When it comes down to showing our Mashams though, it is really a team effort with dad, my uncle Alan, my brother James and me all involved.”

The Masham breed has a fleece with a long staple that Amanda said is also proving increasingly valuable and another reason why more are starting to come to the breed.

“We used to sell Masham wool to the British Wool Marketing Board and received very little for it, but we now have a lady who takes all of our Masham wool, washes and dyes it before selling it to spinners.

“We’ve gone from receiving a paltry amount to a very worthwhile figure. The reason is down to how well the wool breaks up, how fine it is and the staple length which on a Masham can be 10 to 15 cms. Teeswaters and Wensleydales make more as their wool is finer still, but the Masham has found a new market among spinners.

“The Masham is becoming more popular once again and is attracting new sales from as far afield as Devon, Cornwall and Wales.”

Alan recalls when the Masham was sold in far greater numbers.

“We used to sell a lot of shearlings at Masham livestock market. We and two other breeders would each take 300 there every year and the gimmer lamb sales would have 5,000 to 6,000, but then the prices dropped because everyone wanted the Mule instead.

“These days most breeders have only around 50 to 60 ewes, but it’s good to see it coming back a bit.”

The Douthwaites’ family farm enterprise is made up of a flock of Mashams, Mules, Swaledales and Dalesbreds. The Mashams and Mules are then put to Texels and Suffolks.

They sell breeding sheep at Bentham and Skipton, keep their own replacements and also sell into the fat lamb markets.

They have 150 acres of arable land and operate as Douthwaite Agricultural Contractors which sees Chris’s son James at the helm. James said their main area of contracting is in baling.

“Round baling has been our biggest business, but we also now have a square baler. We undertake all kinds of grass work through summer from wrapping, raking, mowing and baling.

“We do a fair bit of ploughing and drilling in autumn and winter and I also lead potatoes.

“On the farm we grow wheat, barley and oilseed rape. A lot of people didn’t grow oilseed rape this year and maybe that’s why the price has gone up.

“We got away without flea beetle attacking the crop this year. We are able to store the grain. We feed our sheep with the barley.”

The Douthwaites’ owned acreage runs to around 700 acres overall with 200 at Kirkby Overblow, 300 at Menwith Hill and another 200 acres rented around Kirkby Overblow.