Slender margins on the moors

Richard Findlay, who farms in Westerdale, fears the price of lamb could go down further. Picture: Gary Longbottom
Richard Findlay, who farms in Westerdale, fears the price of lamb could go down further. Picture: Gary Longbottom
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IT’S SOMETIMES difficult to know just how much pressure a farming sector is under when attending the Great Yorkshire Show.

Those who are showing their livestock want to enjoy their week because it may be their one holiday of the year and it’s a time for fun and meeting old friends as much as it is about competition in the rings.

The talk amongst the sheep pens, pig lanes and cowsheds is usually more of a general nature and invariably related to either selling or buying stock in some way and catching up on family situations, unless something catastrophic has happened in the industry.

In contrast to the revelry elsewhere, the first day of the show sees a series of press conferences held. This year the National Farmers’ Union used their 30-minute slot to draw attention to the much lower price sheep farmers are getting for their lamb at present. So how bad is it?

Richard Findlay runs Quarry Farm in Westerdale on the North York Moors where he has 300 acres of in-bye grassland and 1,200 acres of open heather moorland, carrying 800 ewes with followers. Around 750 of his ewes are the Easy Care breed developed on Anglesey in the 1960s by sheep farmer Iolo Owen, with the remainder Beltex. Seven years ago Richard and six other sheep farmers started up the Seven Hill Farmers Co-operative that has now grown to 28 sheep farmers marketing 15,000 lambs largely through Tesco’s Finest branding, and in addition he also sells the top end of his lambs at Thirsk livestock market.

He was on hand at this year’s press conference in his roles as chairman of the NFU’s regional livestock board and as chairman of the national sheep group.

He said: “There’s no denying the lamb price has fallen for all of us. Last year at this time we were getting around £5.20 per kg and lightweight lambs were making around £75. This year they’re making around £55. I hope I’m wrong but I think the price could go down even further.

“The reason is that demand is lacklustre. Usually our exports put a bottom in the market but the strength of the pound against the euro is working against us.”

The UK export market is vital to the lamb price, with 40 per cent of UK lamb usually purchased abroad and 75-80 per cent of that figure heading to France, so there’s a real problem when demand weakens due to currency fluctuation.

The export market usually buys the top quality end of lamb and also the lower end, leaving the middle market lamb for the supermarket and ethnic sales to compete for around 30 per cent of the market each. Without the same competition from the export market there becomes a surplus of lamb and the price goes down.

“It’s disappointing especially as this has generally been regarded as a good lambing year,” Richard said. “Most farms have had plenty of grass and the lambs have thrived.

“On our farm in Westerdale sheep make up 80 per cent of our enterprise. We’ve almost got all our eggs in one basket because generally agriculture has been forced down the road of specialisation where we are more masters of one trade than jack of all. When things are going well that’s an advantage but when things dip it’s a challenge.”

Sheep farmers’ woes are not helped by the current image of lamb either.

“Lamb consumption is a concern because for a while it has been the most expensive red meat on the shelf. It’s now seen more as a treat than a regular choice.”

Richard’s chose the Easy Care breed, which in his case is a Cheviot X Easy Care, based on their wool shedding ability.

“They moult more like a dog would and that means I don’t have to get someone in to shear them. I begrudge paying someone to shear sheep for more than the fleece is worth and these descendants of the Wiltshire Horn crossed with Welsh Mountain sheep fit the bill in also being a hardy breed that fulfils Higher Level Stewardship regulations on the moors.

“The sheep sector has a lot of similarities to the dairy sector. We’re becoming more efficient and yet we’re finding it harder to hang on to the financial benefit.”

Sweet side venture

Richard and his wife Polly have developed another strand to their farming business.

“We now have 50 hives, after starting out with five given to us by one of my aunts.

“Dependent on the volume produced we now sell up to 5,000 jars of honey a year, 2,000 candles and beeswax polish.

“The income isn’t particularly large but it’s also very low cost with the main input being my labour.

“It probably makes up about 10 per cent of the farm business, with summer grazing of cattle by other farmers making up another 10 per cent. We trade as Westerdale Apiaries.”