Meet the sheep farmer who celebrated 50 years at the Great Yorkshire Show this summer

Sitting on a wall in his home village of Leavening when just a boy led to a life of showing sheep for a man from North Yorkshire who celebrated 50 years at the Great Yorkshire Show in July.

Colin Milburn’s parents ran a coach and coal business in the small rural village, but a question from local farmer Les Midgley brought about Colin’s showing bug and in subsequent years he earned a reputation firstly for his Suffolks and then Texels before switching to breeding Zwartbles twenty years ago.

Colin said that showing became his life.

“Les had seen me sat on the wall and asked whether I wanted a job. They were clipping sheep and I would roll up the wool. I continued working there on weekends and holidays and went to the Great Yorkshire Show with Les showing his crossbred sheep and butchers’ lambs in my teens.

Colin with his wife KathrynColin with his wife Kathryn
Colin with his wife Kathryn
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“I became pretty good with a pair of shears as I’d help others with their trimming too. I’d learned from a contract trimmer who would come to Mr Midgley.

“Les used Suffolk tups on his crossbred ewes and as the breed was something I’d got to know I began breeding my own pedigree flock.

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"I bought my first Suffolks from another Midgley, Tom, from Garrowby, who had one of the top flocks in the country, and I became good friends with many of the biggest names in the showing world including the Bulmers of Great Habton.

Colin Milburn of West Farm, West Knapton, near Malton, with his Zwartble ewesColin Milburn of West Farm, West Knapton, near Malton, with his Zwartble ewes
Colin Milburn of West Farm, West Knapton, near Malton, with his Zwartble ewes

“My best moment has to be when I had Zwartbles male champion at the Great Yorkshire Show, but I also had an absolutely unbelievable time at the Royal Smithfield Show, which I attended many times and Kelso Ram Sales where you just had to go if you were into breeding. I once sold a Texel ram there for 1,600 guineas.

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“At one time I would sell 30-40 rams a year at major sales such as Kelso, Malton’s Michaelmas Sale, Skipton and Fadmoor, but showing sheep at the summer agricultural shows was always something I really enjoyed at the Great Yorkshire, Driffield, Ryedale and Malton.”

Showing and breeding sheep was Colin’s paid-for-passion alongside his day job of working for Ralph Yates in Malton as a mechanic on farm machinery, mainly specialising on combines, where he worked for 25 years, becoming service manager.

Colin said his decision to have one or two sheep had grown into a much larger flock and at his height he had a flock of 300 Texels and Suffolks.

“By that time my wife Kathryn and I had bought a smallholding at Scagglethorpe and we were renting bits of land here and there before we eventually moved to West Farm at West Knapton where we live today.

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“The sheep have always been a great hobby that have provided a bonus income on top of my work which after Yates’, saw me repairing combines for farmers under my own steam and in the past twenty years working on farms for local farmers.”

Colin said his switch to the Zwartbles breed was in 2002.

“I saw them for the first time at the Great Yorkshire Show when they were being shown in the Any Other Breed classes.

“I thought they could be the next big thing breed-wise and in terms of numbers at the Great Yorkshire they have increased as they are stylish, bonny-looking sheep that if crossed with a continental provide a very good, fast-growing, easy-lambing, milky ewe.

“I decided to get in at the beginning and I’m flock number 145 in the UK of nearly 2,000 registered flocks today. I took a trailer over to Holland and came back with 10 and got up to 20 of them.

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“They are a little different to having Suffolks and Texels that I gradually sold off as they are a niche market pedigree breed, so I only keep a smaller number than I used to with the other breeds. If you’re selling in the ram market you only want so many. There’s no point having 50 or 60 when you can only sell half a dozen to good money.”

Colin has had two new knees and two new hips, which had contributed to his thinning down of numbers, but his love of showing at Harrogate is undiminished.

“We just go to Harrogate now and the annual Zwartbles Sheep Association sale at Carlisle. I had male champion with a shearling ram at the Great Yorkshire which sold for 1,500 guineas at Carlisle about six years ago. They’re still paying their way.

“Going to Harrogate is ingrained into me. I love meeting up with old friends and the showground has some of the best livestock buildings in the country for sheep. In my fifty years there I have been constantly amazed at how the numbers of sheep and different breeds have grown.

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“It was a bit strange this year as the sheep were split into two groups of MV accredited and non-MV and you were passing exhibitors who were coming to the show as you were leaving but it was still great to be back.”