Why Romney sheep are best break from North Yorkshire farming traditions for Jervaulx couple

Decisions over farming the right breed of sheep are not made simply on the basis of following other farmers in the proverbial manner, like sheep.

Left to right: Andrew Percy, Aaron Bell, Luke Percy and Nicola Bell with dog Willow at Springhill farm near Jervaulx. Picture by Gary Longbottom.
Left to right: Andrew Percy, Aaron Bell, Luke Percy and Nicola Bell with dog Willow at Springhill farm near Jervaulx. Picture by Gary Longbottom.

There are geographic reasons that dictate why you should have a hill breed as opposed to a lowland breed, but just because you live where Swaledale and North of England Mule sheep are commonplace doesn’t necessarily mean you should farm them.

All breeds have their own characteristics and it is often a mix of rationale that brings about a favour of one over another. Some offer greater hardiness, others better prolificacy in the average number of lambs born per ewe and some possess superior maternal traits.

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In the dales and moors of North Yorkshire the Swaledale and Mule breeds have ruled supreme for decades as the most populous hill breed, but Springhill in Jervaulx, between Masham and Leyburn, is home to a 500-strong flock of Romney breeding ewes that thrive on the edge of Richmondshire where soon to be married Nicola Bell and Andrew Percy run a sheep and cattle enterprise across 80 owned acres with a further 120 rented and an additional 60 of summer grazing.

Left to right: Andrew Percy, Aaron Bell, Luke Percy and Nicola Bell with dog Willow at Springhill farm near Jervaulx. Picture by Gary Longbottom.

The sheep operation includes the Romneys; an MV accredited flock of 60 pedigree Texels bred to rear, show and sell shearling tups; a small flock of Swaledales, also for showing; and more recently a new small Beltex flock.

The cattle side of the farm runs to 60 Angus X sucklers put to an Angus bull and 20 Dexter suckler cows put to their Dexter bull. It is a farm business that is all about producing the best income from the stock, which now incorporates a new on-farm business Springhill Beef & Lamb. Beef is now also supplied to Nicola’s brother Ian’s ox roast catering company Abbotside Events in Askrigg.

Andrew Percy with some of his flock of Romney ewes at Springhill farm near Jervaulx. Picture by Gary Longbottom.

“Andrew is also a contract shearer,” says Nicola. “He has sheared in Norway and New Zealand and I worked on a farm in New Zealand for six months as part of an International Agricultural Exchange, so we had both seen plenty of Romneys.

“Andrew made the switch from Mules to Romneys around 10-12 years ago. Financially, the Romney has worked better as they need less inputs than the Mule and the Romneys largely look after themselves. Last year all of the ewes were tupped by a Romney, as our Romney wether lambs were outperforming those we were crossing with. They were finishing faster and were ready to go straight off grass.

“We lamb from April and have 150 elite Romneys from which we breed our own replacements. We market all of our lamb through Dunbia, at what was Dawn Meats in Carnaby near Bridlington as well as selling our own meat direct.”

The Romney Marsh breed, to give its full name, is a longwool breed that originated in Kent but has proved massively popular in New Zealand having been first imported there in 1853. The New Zealand Romney as it is better known now makes up over 60 per cent of the country’s 27 million breeding sheep. Its wool is ideal for carpet making.

“With Andrew being a shearer himself we don’t have the cost of shearing to worry about,” says Nicola and while we don’t receive anything like the prices received years ago our wool cheque from the Romneys attracts a larger price than some other breeds and adds to our overall farm productivity.”

The couple’s two sons Aaron, 15, and Luke, 5, are both actively involved with the other sheep breeds on the farm and they, along with Nicola and Andrew, form the family’s showing team.

“I’ve always loved sheep and knew, when I was over in New Zealand and Australia, this was where my future lay. I stayed ‘down under’ for longer than I’d originally anticipated and worked in restaurants on Hamilton Island, but when I came back I studied at Harper Adams and took up shepherding jobs, firstly on Lord Derby’s Knowsley Estate on Merseyside and then on Masham Estate.

“Aaron was born in 2003. Andrew and I got together through friends in 2009 and Luke was born in 2013. I’d rented some land in 2005 and had initially bought some Mules.

“Aaron and I have been showing Texels for the past ten years. His prefix is Yorkshiredale and mine is Riverdale. I also show Swaledales and now Luke has his own flock of Beltex that he’s started showing with his godfather Richard Lancaster of Clitheroe.

“Aaron and Luke are both regulars in the young handler competitions and spend time halter training their sheep. Aaron’s proudest moment so far is having Texel breed champion at Wensleydale Show in 2015 and we are all looking forward to showing there again this weekend.”

Nicola had Swaledale breed champion with a gimmer shearling at the Great Yorkshire Show in 2007 and the family has had three reserve Texel champions at Ryedale. They had champion Texel, once again with a gimmer shearling, at Masham Sheep Fair, one of their two local shows along with Wensleydale.

While the sheep operation forms an exciting part of the farm enterprise at Springhill the cattle are bringing about another string to the couple’s bow, particularly the Dexters.

“When we first tasted Dexter beef, from animals we had bought-in to rear on to finish, we thought wow! Dexter beef is something special. That’s why we started Springhill Beef & Lamb to sell 5-10 kilo boxed meat straight from the farm in January 2018.”

Nicola and Andrew moved into Springhill in 2013 where Andrew had put up livestock sheds since his parents and he bought the land some years ago. The couple are both former young farmers’ club members.

If you’re in Leyburn today and heading for Wensleydale Show watch out for the Texels and Beltex being shown by Nicola, Andrew, Aaron and young Luke.