Two weeks from now the curtain rises on another summer agricultural show season and one of the many who will be competing with livestock at Otley Show on May 21 is Zwartbles sheep breeder Martin Preston of Greenhill Crag Farm in Bingley.
His pedigree flock that he started in 2002 as “something for the kids” now runs to 40 breeding ewes. Son Harry now 17, who was four-years-old at the time, has his own flock within that number and teenage daughter Sophie assists her dad.
Last year Martin picked up the North of England Zwartbles large flock and overall titles and his homebred ram Greenhill Blakeney has been reserve male breed champion at the Great Yorkshire Show for the past two years.
But Martin knows that last year’s successes offer no guarantees.
“The thing I always say is that we set off with nothing and anything we bring home is a bonus. Everyone knows each other at the shows and it doesn’t matter which breed you have we’re all at the very least on nodding terms. That’s why to me, while it’s great to win, it’s important to be gracious regardless of what happens.
“I’ve always tried to teach my kids that if you stand there and you’re top of the line you shake the man or woman’s hand next to you, smile and say ‘well done’ - but also you should do the same if you’re sixth out of six.”
The agricultural show season isn’t a sprint it’s a marathon with more than 50 large and small shows taking place throughout Yorkshire between now and the summer season’s closer of Nidderdale Show at Pateley Bridge in September.
Martin thinks long and hard over which of his show team will be exhibited at each show.
“With Otley being the first in the season there’s a great deal of interest in weighing up what you will be up against in the coming months but it doesn’t mean that what you see there will still be being shown by September.
“Our lambing takes place in December so that we have them as big and strong as they can be for showing and I will have a couple that won’t be on show until the Royal Highland in the middle of June. I’m not taking them out until they are at 12 o’clock and at present they’re only about 10 past 11. We live in hope for what will happen at any show and I’m never confident.”
Martin first competed with pedigree Charollais fat lambs at Bingley Show in 1988.
“I got to like it straight away but I wasn’t good at the trimming and preparation when I started. Fortunately a good friend of mine Mark Evans from Keighley had Suffolks that his dad Len used to trim up for him. Len did the same for me.
“I used to take my sheep to him the week before the Great Yorkshire Show and he’d trim Mark’s Suffolks and my Charollais. Len gave us both strict instructions not to touch them once he’d finished until the Tuesday morning of the show when we were allowed to take their coats off.”
Martin was born in Harecroft near Wilsden. His father had a good friend who bred Arab horses and Martin grew up around them.
After being in the police force for a number of years, he transferred to the mounted police. He won on his horse Denholme at the Royal Windsor Horse Show in 1984 and came fifth in the Horse of the Year Show police horse class in 1985. He retired from the force eight years ago after 30 years.
“Things could have been different. My grandfather Thomas Leach was a farmer-butcher in Wilsden. He retired in 1974. If I’d been a couple of years older I may have had a butcher’s shop.”
Martin and his wife Jacqui live next to her parents, Richard and Carol Robinson. It was Richard’s pedigree Limousin cattle and pedigree Charollais sheep that brought Martin into the show arena.
“Jacqui and I had a few crossbreds before I bought my first pedigree Charollais ewe from Lockerbie in 1985. I started with the Zwartbles breed when I bought two ewe lambs from breeder Mike Sands who used to live in Micklethwaite.
“The Zwartbles is more accepted than ever as sheep farmers have come to realise its maternal breeding quality. I like the Charollais X Zwartbles. When you put a Beltex or Texel on you then see some fantastic butchers’ lambs.”
HUMBLE HOPES FOR THE SEASON
The Zwartbles beed originated in the Friesland region of the north Netherlands and the first imports into the UK came in the early 1990s.
Its characteristics include brown-black fleece with a white blaze on the face, white socks and a white tail tip. It is recognised as an easy lambing, milky mother. Martin’s priorities are its conformation.
“That’s always first for me but the markings are important for the breed standard.”
Martin and Raymond Heigh of Bentham are known as the ‘Yorkshire Boys’ among their fellow Zwartbles breeders when they show their stock further afield.