NEXT week sees the start of a new crop of lambs and calves at Williambeck Farm in Bilsdale.
It is situated just south of the village of Chopgate on the Helmsley-Stokesley B1257, a favourite road of free-flowing motorcyclists. And things are moving pretty fast on the farm too.
Philip and Helen Makin took over what was Philip’s grandfather’s farm, on his mother’s side, around nine years ago and they are quickly earning a reputation for the quality of their livestock. They have also been bitten by the showing bug.
Last autumn they attended the Northern Area Texel Sheep Breeders’ annual show and sale at Skipton Livestock Market and took the overall championship with their shearling ram Williambeck Royal Flush. He had previously taken the reserve champion title at Driffield Show and first prize in his class at Ryedale Show. They sold him to John Mellin of Long Preston for 1500 guineas. Remarkably, it was the first time they had competed in the annual show.
“We only took up with the Texel breed three years ago,” says Philip. “We were at Skipton buying tups for our Mule ewes when we saw this Texel ewe. She was huge and was in with a pen of 20.
“I nicknamed her Bertha. But the pen didn’t sell. We always buy sheep on the way they stand out and she had caught my eye, so I followed the pen of ewes out of the ring. I asked how much the farmer wanted for Bertha if she was bought without the rest. I paid 150 guineas and the next year we returned to the market and bought a few more.”
They now have 30 Texel ewes as well as 150 Mules on the 150-acre farm, all on a slope to the east of the road.
Philip had always wanted to farm in his own right.
He attended agricultural college at Askham Bryan and got his work experience with Ray Flintoff in Bransdale and Mark Phelps in Great Ayton. He still works for Mark, as he has for the past seven years, as and when he is needed.
“My grandfather Wilf Todd, my mum’s father, had run the farm with his brother Ernie. Wilf was about to retire and had reduced his sheep numbers on the farm to around 15. He gave us those and handed over the reins to us. We increased the flock and at one time we had nearly 500 commercial ewes.”
Philip and Helen married seven years ago and now have two children – Phoebe, five, and Freddie, two.
Freddie is short for Wilfred, named after Philip’s grandfather. With a young family and greater responsibilities, Philip found that keeping the size of flock they had, as well as holding down his job elsewhere, was untenable. They chose to go for quality rather than quantity, keeping fewer sheep but putting a greater emphasis on breeding.
“We met John Mellin of Hull House Farm” – that’s another John Mellin, incidentally, not the one who bought their prize tup last year – “and bought a few of his ewes privately. He is a well respected Texel breeder and we learned a lot from him. When we came home after our first meeting with John, we decided to cull a lot of what we had and set off again with them.
“In 2010 we started competing seriously at agricultural shows. It’s a real shop window for what you are doing. We went to Ryedale and Stokesley and had reserve champion at both. They were the only two shows we did that year. Last year we went to Driffield, Ryedale, North Yorkshire County and, for the first time, the Great Yorkshire Show.
“We didn’t get any tickets but we were pleased with our showing. Our ewe stood tenth in a big class. There were 56 entries in the gimmer class and we stood 20th. We were pleased because we knew we were stood next to people who have been showing stock a lot longer.
“For us to be amongst them with stock that was our own home-bred sheep felt as though it was a real achievement.
“When you’re at home on the farm you can think that your sheep are the best but unless you’re stood next to others you can’t properly compare.”
Philip and Helen are enthusiastic about what they are doing and the adrenaline rush they are getting from being successful in the show ring is fuelling their desire for greater things. But that doesn’t mean it is going to their heads. They are still learning the art of producing the right stock for showing and then how to ensure the same stock is on target for breeding.
“We have been used to breeding commercial ewe stock. You want each ewe to be fit for the tup, but what we have learned is that show ewes need a bit more size about them, a bit more fat. That was a bit alien to us at first, but now we know it’s just a case of getting them back down in size when it comes to tupping.”
Their commercial flock’s spare ewes and lambs are sold at Northallerton Livestock Market and up to 100 gimmer lambs are sold privately to a farmer further down the road.
The couple have recently started their own herd of Belgian Blue-X cows, of which they have nine in-calf and two heifers. Philip would like to run a pedigree herd in the future, possibly Limousins. “There’s only so much you can afford to spend. We’ll just see how the herd goes first, then we will try to increase gradually,” he says.
They also house 350 pigs on a bed-and-breakfast basis for local pig producer Ian Mosey. They arrive at four weeks old and go out again at eight to nine weeks.
When the pigs first arrived at the farm, in May last year, it was Phoebe’s birthday. She thought she had been given them as her present.
Williamhouse Farm’s 150 acres include 48 acres of moorland, which is of little use. The rest is predominantly grassland which is managed by a five-yearly reseeding of the leys. Philip and Helen grow between eight and 10 acres of kale for the sheep.
In the lead-up to their busy time of lambing and calving, Philip has been working on a new water system on the farm, fencing off water courses and putting in water troughs with the help of a CSF (Catchment Sensitive Farming) grant.