Dutch sheep make their mark

Raymond Heigh from Brook House farm, High Bentham, clipping  his prize winning  Zwartlble Ewe lamb. (Gl1006/81e)
Raymond Heigh from Brook House farm, High Bentham, clipping his prize winning Zwartlble Ewe lamb. (Gl1006/81e)
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WENSLEYDALE Show takes place next Saturday and visitors with a passing knowledge of sheep breeds might anticipate seeing quite a few Wensleydale ewes, rams and lambs exhibiting their lustrous wool, but there will be one breed that has caught the eye of breeders in recent times that will be out in force in far greater number.

It’s somewhat ironic that a breed that was registered on the critically rare list in its home country of Holland is now more popular than one of our own traditional breeds but that’s exactly what has happened with the Zwartbles that will host its Northern Branch Show at the Leyburn showground on Bellerby Road.

Raymond Heigh of Brook House Farm in Bentham will have his show team amongst the entry of around 80-90 of the breed that’s distinctive for its white blaze from the crown of its head to the muzzle on an otherwise brown-black fleece.

“They are a very striking breed and provide lean meat with a good taste that TV chef James Martin has used on his programme. The ewes have great maternal instincts, are easy lambing and were once favoured for their milk. I started with them when we came out of dairy cows ten years ago.

“I now have 25 breeding ewes. There are over 750 recorded flocks in the UK and they are suitable for anyone from large scale sheep farmers to smallholders. I find them addictive and they hold their own in the market and at breed sales. I’ve had a lamb sell at £1,000; a ewe lamb at £1,500. I’m now also a director of the Zwartbles Sheep Association that celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.

“What you have to watch for is that you don’t keep getting them taller because that way you get less meat on them. They’re a bit like getting the balance between a Holstein Friesian and a Friesian cow in that you want that combination of the stockier frame without them getting too tall.

“You can tell how well noticed they have become among other breeders when you see them placed highly in the interbreed championships. I’ve had an interbreed reserve champion this year at Great Eccleston Show when I was up against the likes of the Suffolks and Texels.

“Our show season starts at Otley and takes in Skelton, Great Yorkshire, Penrith, Gargrave, Lunesdale, Great Eccleston, Bentham, Westmorland and Nidderdale. We’ve added Wensleydale this year because of the Northern Branch show. I’d usually go to Kilnsey but with it being just after Wensleydale it can be a bit much for the sheep.

“This year I’ve won three breed championships as well as the reserve interbreed.”

Raymond started showing them in the first year he took them on and won on his debut at Westmorland County Show. He became good friends with the judge on the day, fellow white rose breeder Martin Preston.

Raymond farms in partnership with his parents Robert and Wendy. They finished milking cows 10 years ago. Wendy, whose parents William and Phyllis Joel had come to Brook House in the early 1940s, had been around dairy cows all her life. The family had a milk round serving Bentham and they competed with their stock at the summer agricultural shows.

“If we’d been going to stay in (dairy) we would have needed a new set-up that would have cost us a quarter of a million pounds,” says Wendy. “It just wasn’t worth it.”

“We feel very much for those who are still dairying today and who are really struggling,” says Raymond.

Today the farming operation is 45 beef store cattle bought in at eight to ten months old and taken through to around 24 months; 170 Texel X or Suffolk X ewes and a few Mules, with a further 100 store lambs.

Raymond also works part-time for Procters Farms in the village of Wray and helps out at Bentham livestock market.

The pedigree Zwartbles flock is Raymond’s own individual enterprise in addition to the family business, but he gets the whole family involved and they will all be out in force at Leyburn next Saturday.

His sister Denise farms with her husband up in Monkgrisedale, Cumbria where they have Mule sheep and their two daughters Charlotte and Grace help Raymond exhibit his sheep at the shows.

History in the lowlands

The Zwartbles breed originates from Friesland in the northern Netherlands.

The breed name means black and blaze, and they are thought to have been descended from another northern Dutch breed the Schoonebeker from an area known as Schoonebeek in the province of Drenthe.

Wensleydale Show celebrated its 100th show last year and in addition to this year’s Northern Branch 20th Anniversary Show of Zwartbles it will also see the debut of a new Supreme Cattle Championship to be competed for between both dairy and beef breed champions.

Wensleydale Show takes place Saturday, August 29.