Farm of the Week: Satisfied with sheep on the edge of the Moors

There cannot be too many places that have exactly the same population statistic from one census to the next but the tiny village of Commondale tucked away from the busy A171 on the northern edge of the North York Moors is recorded as having 129 inhabitants in both 2001 and 2011.

Judith Robinson with her Scotch Blackface sheep on the moors above Commondale.

Unless this is a place where time stands still there will presumably have been the customary hatches, matches and dispatches as well as movements to and from the village during that time but one family has remained as just three in number.

The Robinsons of Skelder Cottage have farmed in Commondale since Judith Robinson’s grandparents moved from being landlord and landlady of the village’s pub The Cleveland Inn to Skelder Farm in 1939. Back then the farm consisted of a small dairy herd and a flock of Scotch Blackface sheep.

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Today, Judith runs the farming enterprise, following on from her dad Donald who retired in 1994. The farm was signed over to her nine years ago. It is wholly based around sheep and in a fortnight she starts on another lambing season that should bring around 250 lambs by early May.

“I have 40 Suffolk ewes that are due to lamb from March 1 and 210 Scotch Blackface ewes that are meant to start after the Suffolks have finished but it never works out that way as they always overlap. It’s a busy time and I do all the lambing myself. The best thing I’ve ever bought is a polytunnel where I lamb them all. It’s far warmer in there.

“When dad was involved we used to keep all the ewes and lambs inside until the last one had lambed, mark them all up and then turn them out as a job lot but we found that some of the flock were losing condition by being kept in so long. I now turn them out as they lamb at the rate of a few a day. That has helped improved the ewes no end and gets them back to normal much more quickly.”

Judith has had her own flock since starting with one ewe as a 10-year-old.

“I didn’t like school much and always wanted to be at home with my dad on the farm. I never wanted to do anything else in fact I don’t know anything else apart from baking. At that time we were still farming at Skelder just up the lane from where we are now but when agriculture went through a really bad period in the early 90s we sold half of our 110 acres and the farmhouse and moved down to Skelder Cottage. We now have 55 acres of grassland and 509 acres of Moors stray.

“Farming wasn’t what it is now. You never got the subsidies that we get today and they really do help in areas like ours. We’re classed as ‘severely disadvantaged’ and if we didn’t get them I don’t think we would survive.

“At one time in the early 90s we were selling ewes at just 50p each. That’s not 50p per kilo it’s just 50p. That’s less than the price of a bar of chocolate or a packet of crisps. The commission due to the auction mart was 75p! Fortunately the 25p we would have had to pay was waived but we just weren’t making anything and with feed and the cost of keeping the stock we were losing out completely. Low prices lasted for about three or four years.”

It’s a different story today. Judith was all set to take ten Scotch Blackface gimmers to Ruswarp Mart on Wednesday where she was hoping for a price of around £40 for each of them.

“Farmers in general seem a bit better off. I used to buy the cheaper Blackface tups because I couldn’t afford what I call fancy prices. I know that paying more can always be a risk because as all sheep farmers know, no matter how much you pay a ewe or tup can just keel over and die by looking at them. These days I am paying more for my tups and I’m now getting the ones I want rather than the ones I can afford. I’ve been doing that for around ten years and the sheep have improved a great deal. I’ve had quite a few really nice comments from people who tell me I must be doing something right. We generally produce stores that then go on to lowland farms who take them through to fat lambs.”

Judith feeds her sheep on hay and feed blocks when they are gathered in for tupping in November and after Christmas they are on liquid feed and hay. She will also use fodder beet in around three weeks’ time. All of her stock goes to Ruswarp Mart with the majority going in September. It’s where Judith feels at home.

“If you go to one place all the time then you feel as though you know everyone, you fit in and you’re one of the mart community. I think people also accept women in farming much more these days. Farming is a lonely occupation and you’re on your own most of the time. At the mart you’re part of something bigger.”

Judith lives with her parents Donald and Elsie, is cheerily single and most happy when she’s working with her flock but that doesn’t mean she always wants things to stay that way. She loves where she lives, sees the funny side of how it can be viewed by an outsider and has ambitions in both her farming and personal life.

“As you might have gathered Commondale is not exactly a nightlife hotspot and I imagine that there are not too many who know how to get here apart from visiting Scouts troops, as the Cleveland County Scouts’ Raven Gill camp site entrance is at the foot of our lane. We also have our own railway station on the Whitby-Middlesbrough line that brings walkers to the village and Moors; and the pub, but that’s it.

“I’d like to have a bigger farm and I’ve made approaches to our local land agent. I do wish there was someone to be here with me to back me up on things. I’m a good baker if that helps. I’ve won quite a lot of prizes at Stokesley Show for my baking. This is starting to sound like I’m auditioning for Blind Date or Take Me Out isn’t it!”

I can personally vouch for Judith’s fruitcake to any willing suitors - and her warm, friendly approach to life in Commondale.