Chuffed and emotional are how Christine Milner summed up her and her husband John’s experience at last week’s inaugural two-day Christmas PrimestockShow and Sale at Thirsk livestock market.
This lovely farming couple from Bales Farm in Healey, who now live in Fearby just a short distance out of Masham, reclaimed the Midland Bank (shows how long ago this was first presented) Challenge Trophy for their pen of three Beltex X fat lambs.
Their win, having also won at the Christmas Show and Sale in its former days as a one-day event, replicated their championship of two years ago. It was a glorious way to bring the curtain down on a career in showing sheep that Christine has enjoyed for at least fifty years, having started showing Suffolks in her teens with her father Dennis Verity.
"We were overcome," says Christine. "And so chuffed that we had won again particularly with it being our last year. The most emotional time came having got the lambs sold the following day and finally sitting down, all the rushing about was over. It all hit me when we had lunch in the Gavel Bar café.
"There will be no more wondering what they are going to sell for. That was another thought. We’ve just under 100 fat lambs, cull ewes and shearlings still to go, but that was the last time we will be showing them. We will be back at Thirsk for the next Christmas Show and Sale, which was fantastic this year, but just to be there."
John and Christine took over at the 1000ft hill farming operation of Bales Farm from John’s father Robert in the late 1970s. Robert and his wife Rachel, John’s mum, had come to tenant Bales from the Swinton Estate in 1954, when John was just three years old, after first farming at High Greenas Farm, Hurst in Swaledale.
Hedgelaying champion recalls the time The Yorkshire Post got him into trouble at school after triumph
Warning over escalating problems for farmers caused by fly-tipping
"When my parents came here it was 240 acres and it hasn’t changed much, we gave up some moor rights,’ says John. ‘My father had a Swaledale flock and a dozen Dairy Shorthorn cows when he started here. We took the cow numbers up to 43 Friesians until we came out of dairying in 2000.
"The farm is inland a long way and a mile from the road. It’s a hill farm that lends itself more to sheep than dairy. The milk tanker drivers didn’t want to be coming to us because of the trek and as we were such a small producer. When the neighbours went out of milk we called it a day. I really liked the cattle side."
Before you get too many ideas of a misty-eyed John at this stage, never fear he’s a true Yorkshire farmer with a heart, but also an eye to making sure everything always worked out financially.
"They definitely all had names," he says wistfully, but when asked what he liked best about dairying he is sharp and unequivocal. "The milk cheque coming in. I’m not that sentimental.
"Farming is the only interest I’ve ever had. I came straight from school into helping my father on the farm. I never went to college and both Christine and I have been happy concentrating our efforts on the sheep for the past nineteen years. When you’re on rented farm you can only do so much, but we’ve always been all about farming."
While the cows were around John worked more closely with them and Christine with the sheep. When they had the dairy herd the breeding ewe numbers were around 200, but once the cows had gone that steadily increased to around 600.
Farmers urged to take advantage of free health checks as winter sets in
Food for thought for Yorkshire farmers as climate change fears see consumers cut out meat
"We gave over with the Swaledales and went over to Mules," says Christine. "We were breeding Mule gimmer lambs selling them as gimmers. We then crossed them with the Texel and began keeping the Texel Mules.
"We bought our first Texel tup around 1999-2000 and a Beltex soon after and started keeping white-faced sheepbreeding the Texel Mule, which we then started crossing with a Texel X Beltex tup, which we carried on with over the years.
"We went up to Lanark to purchase our original pure Beltex tup and for our Texel X Beltex tups we always went to Paul Slater in Cheshire. That’s what our female stock were based on.
"We lambed in February and April bringing all the ewes in. As soon as they were fit enough, dependent on the weather the April lambs would be out, but the February lambs could take a month to get out. Bales is a very high, hard-going farm."
Gradually the Milners’ Swaledales and Mules decreased until their flock became totally whitefaced. They took the title last week at Thirsk with a pen of April-born homebred, three-quarter Beltex fat lambs off Texel X Beltex mothers by a pedigree Beltex stock tup HallcrakeBrigadier.
"That was a nice way to finish off," says Christine. "The reserve champion lambs were by a son of Brigadier that we sold as a shearling tup, whose owner took the reserve championship, so we had a hand in both. We’d originally bought Brigadier as a tup lamb from Skipton mart."
John and Christine held a dispersal sale of their breeding flock of 550 mostly Texel X Beltex ewes in September as they began calling time on their farming career that has seen then raise two daughters – Carolyn, who came into the farm partnership six years ago but now works for the civil service and currently lives on the farm with her family; and Jennifer who works with her husband in his car mechanic business.
"We met at Masham YFC," says John. "Being local we knew each other before that, but hadn’t met up until then."
"The first thing I remember about coming to Bales Farm to see John was it was a long way off the road," says Christine. "You wonder where you’re going when you start up the track, but I’d been used to our farm which was not quite so high and we’d had sheep and cattle as John’s father had here.
"From Howe Farm where I grew up in Fearby, dad and I would enter the commercial lamb classes with our Suffolks. We did very well. We won at the Great Yorkshire Show and we’d attend about 20 local shows each summer starting at Otley in May and going right through the season. The Suffolks changed, like a lot of breeds do. They were much finer boned when we showed them."
One of John and Christine’s prized possessions is the Sonny Astwood Perpetual Trophy rosebowl, which they won for a staggering 19 successive years with their Mule gimmer lambs before the closure of Mashamlivestock mart brought their run to its end.
"When Masham closed Sonny said we might as well keep it as it had spent 19 years with us anyway," says John.
John and Christine moved to selling their fat lambs at Thirsk. The move has brought them great joy in the show ring and sale ring.
"We came to Thirsk four years ago – and they seem to have liked them every time. It has been emotional, but we’re now ready for maybe taking a little holiday or two."