Why Muker Show is the Premier League for Swaledale sheep

Steven, Carol and Will Porter with Swaledales at Summer Lodge Farm, Low Row, Swaledale, preparing for the Muker Show which will be held on Wednesday 4th September. Picture by Bruce Rollinson.
Steven, Carol and Will Porter with Swaledales at Summer Lodge Farm, Low Row, Swaledale, preparing for the Muker Show which will be held on Wednesday 4th September. Picture by Bruce Rollinson.

Thrilling, nerve-jangling action from Ben Stokes at Headingley last weekend had us all on the edge of our seats, but up in the gorgeous setting of Muker in Swaledale there is only one game in town on Wednesday September 4, even though the next Test match starts the same day.

Muker Show is one of the summer show season’s smallest in terms of attendance, however it has always been one of my personal favourites with its renowned fell race, the Muker Silver Band, children’s races and most importantly of all the Premier League of Swaledale sheep – there are no classes for anything other.

The Porter family run a flock of 1,200-1,300 Swaledale breeding ewes. Picture by Bruce Rollinson.

The Porter family run a flock of 1,200-1,300 Swaledale breeding ewes. Picture by Bruce Rollinson.

Steven Porter and his family have shown their sheep here for many years, won five trophies last year and have had Supreme Champion on several occasions.

“Winning at Muker is the pinnacle for Swaledale breeders,” says Steven, whose family’s farm enterprise is based at Low Oxnop and also includes Summer Lodge and Bankshead Farm near Low Row and other land at Healaugh and Grinton.

“We select our show sheep at clipping time when we take the wool off them and give them a bit of hand feed. They stay outside. If we take them straight off the moor they don’t look fit enough. We had local female champion last year.

“We will take ten or maybe a dozen or so and enter most classes. We always look forward to it. I’ve been at Muker Show all my life.”

September is the most important time of year for all Swaledale sheep men and women as it heralds the start of the sale season for breeding stock, particularly shearling ewes and tups.

Taking a prize at Muker can set the season rolling just the right way.

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Steven is vice chairman of the Swaledale Sheep Breeders Association’s B District, a role he has held for around ten years, his father John is a past chairman.

“Breeding Swaledale sheep and picking up good prices for tups has kept farmers in the dale. A good price for a decent tup at Hawes auction mart or Kirkby Stephen can keep a farm going. Some tups can make a lot of money and we’ve had some very good prices, but the average is around £1,700. The tup sale at Hawes will usually have 600-700 entered over the two days.”

The Porter family run a flock of 1,200-1,300 Swaledale breeding ewes of which 450 are crossed with the Blue Faced Leicester tup to produce the North of England Mule lambs that are sold to other breeders later this month.

“Lambing is from the end of March through to the middle of May. We run our ewes until six or seven shears. We also have our own small flock of half a dozen Blue Faced Leicester ewes as we try to breed our own tups. We sell the Mule lambs as stores through Hawes. We start selling the horned lambs when it gets to November, selling through Leyburn auction mart’s collection centre to Dunbia.”

Supporting local livestock markets in Hawes, Leyburn, Kirkby Stephen and Middleton in Teesdale is another vital element in the Swaledale sheep trade, and it is also very useful for the family’s cattle trade.

“We sell tups at Hawes and Kirkby Stephen, but we also have a suckler herd of 45 pure Limousin cows and breed our own replacements. We buy heifers and bulls at Kirkby Stephen and sell them with calves at foot back through the mart.

“We also take around 100 Swaledale lambs to Middleton in Teesdale auction mart. We’ve done that for around the last 23 years for their September sale all for breeding. Decent ewes will average around £70-£80 but the better lambs will achieve over £100.”

While the Porters buy out of Hawes and also Kirkby Stephen, Steven likes to buy the majority of tups they need from out of Swaledale.

“It’s where the breed started nearly 200 years ago and for us the local bloodlines work better. We will have around 20 Swaledale tups to sell this time and we usually do alright. We don’t have as many as we used to have as we don’t think there are as many needed right now. The commercial sheep men tend to pay up to and around the £1,000 mark, but some make a lot of money.”

The family business includes head of the family, Steven’s father John, 82, and his mother Annie and brothers Brian and Greg, who is also a builder. The next generation of Steven and his wife Carol’s son, William, and their nephew Christopher are also heavily involved.

A month ago the whole of Swaledale was rocked with calamitous flooding that saw Arkle Beck in Arkengarthdale unable to cope and the flow from Arkengarthdale down to Reeth an unstoppable force.

“We took on land at Grinton a few years ago and the flooding has taken out the top corner of our pasture at Cogden Beck and 25 yards of wall, but we were lucky. We have got off very lightly, but for others it has been terrible. Arkengarthdale suffered the brunt but it came down through Fremington and Reeth to Cogden Hall and on towards Leyburn in a strip.

“That day it had thundered and rumbled all afternoon with no rain. We had 10 minutes when the rain finally came but in Arkengarthdale, Reeth and Grinton it came down so heavily for an hour and a half. Cogden Beck took out both the top and bottom bridges. The National Park said we had lost 11 footbridges and road bridges.

“One farmer lost 60-70 sheep, washed away, damage has been horrendous whether to walls, paths or tracks and it has destroyed many people’s homes and gardens. We are all lucky nobody was injured or killed. If it had happened during the night and while the bike festival was full of tents it could have been far worse.”

While Steven talks of the dale having been very quiet for a couple of weeks until the temporary bridge was opened to reconnect Reeth with Richmond, Reeth Show was a massive success last weekend thanks to the hard work of everyone involved and Muker Show is gearing up for another cracker.