The people and the sheep are tough as each other at the top end of Swaledale, says Mark Holdstock, reporting on a traditional Dales farm.
WITH moors that rise to almost 2,000 feet above sea level, and precious little to give shelter from the biting wind and snow, the sheep and the people need to be tough to survive at the very top end of Swaledale. It is the point where North Yorkshire collides head-on with Cumbria and the sheep that bear the name of this dale have a reputation far beyond it.
“One of the great qualities of the Swaledale is its hardiness,” says 49-year-old Ray Calvert, who has farmed at Hoggarth’s, like his father before him, for all his working life. “It has to be hardy to survive when weather’s bad, and she has the ability to get through winter, then rear a lamb or lambs through the spring.
“At times, when you go out here in winter and it’s ‘wall-top’ height of snow, and it’s frosty and cold for days on end, and you can’t see a blade of grass, they still have this ability to get through on this poor forage, on this common land where they live.”
Not only is Mr Calvert’s flock of pedigree sheep at the top end of Swaledale, it is also at the top end of a system where sheep, and their offspring, are constantly moving downhill – a cog in the machinery of lamb production. At the age of four the ewes are sold on to farmers on lower ground, where they are bred with Bluefaced Leicester rams to provide Mules. Female Mules then travel further down country to be put to a Suffolk or Texel terminal sire to produce lamb for the dinner table.
The price that these final lambs fetch determines the price that farms higher up, in the middle tier, get for their Mules, and that in turn affects what hill farms like Hoggarth’s get for their breeding animals. Ray Calvert says that the annual Bluefaced Leicester sale at Hawes, in neighbouring Wensleydale, is a good indicator of what he can expect for his ewes when they get sold “down country”.
“If trade’s bad there, then you know your trade is going to be bad as well. If trade’s good at those sales, we’ve got a good chance we’re going to get a decent price for our ewes.”
It’s a system which, most of the time, works like clockwork, but 10 years ago it was almost completely destroyed. As with many breeds of hill sheep, the young female Swaledales, the ‘gimmer hoggs’ are sent away to over-winter in warmer, lower, areas. This had dire consequences in 2001 when foot and mouth struck, not at the farm in Swaledale, but further north.
“We lost 340 on a farm in County Durham, which were away wintering.” Mr Calvert tells me. “It was a big blow, it was a big loss for us. But we had a lot left at home, not like a lot of people who had nothing left.”
Effectively, the farm lost a year’s worth of breeding sheep. They have been replaced over time but it took several years.
Ray Calvert runs the farm in partnership with his brother Chris. Hoggarth’s is in fact six farms which have, over the years, become amalgamated.
Ray’s wife, Alison, came to the hills after a somewhat gentler upbringing as a ‘townie’.
“I’m from Scarborough. I was a student nurse at York, and we decided we’d come up to Swaledale for one of our holidays. We actually met in the pub, The Farmer’s Arms at Muker. We all took great pleasure in meeting all of these country bumpkins.”
Of the six student nurses who came on that holiday, Alison was the only one who stayed, her heart captured by Ray. She still works as a nurse in Kendal and Lancaster – a journey which in the toughest winters requires the use of a tractor to get out of the dale.
“I think for me it’s an excellent balance, because when I’m at work it’s very busy, I’m surrounded by a lot of people, do a lot of talking. You come home then to quiet – you don’t have to bother about the neighbours, and it’s lovely.”
Ray Calvert agrees that the beauty around the farm is stunning. He says that the environmental payments he receives are vital to the viability of the precarious life of the hill farmer, and also vital to keep the countryside looking the way it does. He is worried that the European Union might be losing interest in supporting farms like his in disadvantaged areas. He hopes the politicians appreciate the impact that a loss of sheep would have.
“Unfortunately I have seen an example of how the countryside can alter in the space of six months, and I’ll never forget it. After Foot and Mouth, when we eventually dared to go over into Cumbria, the first time I went back over to Kirkby Stephen, I couldn’t believe it.
“All the fields (which had lost their sheep), it had reached the ‘back-end’ and everything was starting to die back, everything looked brown and it looked untidy. It didn’t look attractive, and I just thought: ‘If land was left to its own device, it doesn’t take two or three years, it only takes six or seven months’.”
But despite the harsh winters, memories of foot and mouth and the fragile finances of hill farming, Ray Calvert wouldn’t have his life any other way.
“I do feel very lucky to be doing a job which I enjoy doing. There are so many people who maybe aren’t,” he says.
Mr Calvert farms about 5000 acres of moorland and about 450 acres of ‘in-bye’ land. He has grazing rights for 1400 sheep on the commons of Birkdale and Angram moors.
He runs a largely self-contained flock of pedigree sheep – buying in some Swaledale rams but breeding all his own replacement ewes. Older ewes are sold at Hawes and Kirkby Stephen. Young wethers, for meat, go downhill in September to finish fattening on lowland grass in the Darlington and Sedgefield areas and are then sold at Hawes, Kirkby Stephen and Darlington in December.
The origins of the Swaledale are unclear but Wikipedia says they are “closely related to Scottish Blackface and Rough Fell sheep ... also predominant in upland locations”.
The Swaledale Sheep Breeders Association originally consisted of farmers living within seven miles of the Tan Hill Inn, near Reeth.