Agricultural Correspondent Ben Barnett visited the picturesque Howardian Hills to chat to one determined sheep farmer.
If you’re passionate about something you’ll be good at it, so goes the age-old dictum, but for many young people, identifying what passion to forge into a career can be an overwhelming choice.
Fortunately, for 24-year-old Thomas Houghton, he knew soon enough that he was drawn to pursuing a career in agriculture, and more specifically, sheep farming.
It may not have worked out for the lad from the village of Coxwold near Thirsk at Bishop Burton College, where his time studying ended prematurely and without formal agricultural qualifications, but what he certainly took from the experience was that managing his own flock of sheep was his ambition and one that he was determined to realise.
In order to live out his dream, he took labouring jobs on farms and sheared sheep. With the money he earned he acquired 50 ewes and rented 100 acres of grassland at Manor Farm in Oulston. A short distance from Coxwold, the land at Manor Farm lies on the edge of the Howardian Hills, is divided three ways and tenanted out. Thomas’ portion is hilly, with a beck running through it and to make the land pay he started selling his stock at auction.
Five years in, Thomas keeps his business going by continuing to take labouring jobs at least five days a week. He fits in looking after his livestock, which has grown to a flock of 350 Cheviot ewes, plus lambs, early in the morning and in the evening after a days’ graft. It’s no wonder he’s built like an ox.
We pull over in his Land Rover, look out over his sheep grazing in bright sunshine, and he explains that the path he has taken is a lifestyle choice he thrives on.
“Sometimes I work doing labouring seven days a week. I’ve got used to it now. If I have a day off I get bored. It’s a lifestyle. I enjoy lambing time the most, and taking the lambs to market, and it’s nice just to be able to sit and look. You can’t enjoy it if you don’t make a bit of time to walk round and see what you’ve got.
“I try to maintain high welfare standards by always getting them into the pen and doing their feet and having a good check round to make sure they are always healthy.
“Ever since I was at school I never did any good with GCSEs and a lot of people said I wouldn’t get anywhere. The more I heard that the more determined I was to do something right.”
This is a man with a plan, not just someone indulging in a fantasy to silence the naysayers. He has a clear aim. “I’d like to be able to build up my stock and sell them or I might be able to keep them and have enough lambs to pay for a deposit on a farm.
“The aim is to have enough stock to save up over the years to buy myself a small farm. I would like some cattle but then I’d be tying my money up in fewer animals. It’s a big numbers game.”
It’s his willingness to work and the experiences he’s enjoyed on the job, he says, that have got him where he is today.
“I couldn’t go back to college for the second year because I had no interest other than sheep. I worked two or three years on livestock farms and that helped a lot. I’ve never been asked for any qualifications and I’ve always managed to find work.
“You get yourself a good name. I think the qualifications come into it if you want to work for a bigger commercial business. I work best on my own.
“There seems to be a move to push young farmers into share farming but I prefer not to rely on other people. If you go into business with someone you could run into serious complications if you fall out.”
How easy has it been going it alone?
“Something just clicked. I seem to know what I’m doing. When I was at college it was the only thing I was good at. The shepherd who was there at the time taught me a lot and I left and got a job on a farm in Skipton. He taught me that you can do a lot on your own with sheep. They aren’t like cattle, you can do everything yourself with a couple of sheepdogs. The thing is with farming, whatever mistakes you make are always expensive mistakes. You just learn over time and with experience and that’s why working for other people has got me the knowledge, otherwise it costs a lot to get the vet out every time.
“A lot of young lads who go to college, they might be academic but when it comes to working on the job, you need knowledge from experience of working on farms.”
This winter, financially, has been very hard, he says.
“Because I put everything I make off the land back into the business by buying more stock, I kept nothing over for winter. The price of feed and the price of winter grazing adds up and it’s been such a long winter.
“ It takes it’s toll. I’ve lost a few sheep, the same as everyone but we were lucky we just nicely missed the worst of the snow here. The thing is I farm outside. I don’t have any buildings. I have to take the weather as it comes and make the best of it.
“I have had a lot of lambing experience and up until last year I hadn’t had a problem.
“This year I had a lot of problems with prolapses, lambs not wanting to suck and they needed more TLC to get them on their feet in the first 24 hours. At one point I was losing one a day with them falling into the beck and landing on their backs.”
Identifying when to invest and when to sell stock can be perilous too, he says.
“It’s a bit of a gamble because in most other businesses there is a set price for something and it sells or it doesn’t, but with this you have to go and find the right time in the market for letting them go. I messed up last year when I let 180 lambs go when the prices were down but there is nothing you can do about it.”
More could be done, he says, to channel enthusiasm for farming into success in the industry, and both the education system and politicians have roles to play.