The show where one breed rules

Mark Rukin looks at his flock at Gatehouse Farm.
Mark Rukin looks at his flock at Gatehouse Farm.
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Everybody has a favourite agricultural show during the summer season. From the largest, the Great Yorkshire, to the big one-day events such as Driffield and all those smaller local shows, among them, Muker.

Mark Rukin who farms with his brother Chris at Gatehouse Farm, West Stonesdale and Park Lodge Farm in Keld has shown Swaledales at Muker since he was ‘no’but a lad’. The fact is, he couldn’t show anything else because that’s all there is at Muker Show. There are no cattle and no other breeds of sheep.

This week he was selecting his training squad from which he and Chris will pare down to half a dozen lambs and a couple of gimmer shearlings.

“We don’t do anything else up dale except maybe a few Mule gimmers. Muker is a local show run by local people and my dad John, Chris and myself are all on the working committee. Chris and I are both sheep stewards but we also go up the day before to set up and the day after to tidy up.

“We take part in the classes as well, taking some of our stock but we don’t particularly go to win. We try to get something good enough to go, but it’s hard at this time of year as the lambs can be a bit blue coming off the fell.”

You can sometimes get the feeling when watching sheep judging that the top prizes end up going to the same people. In Muker this can be even more noticeable because there’s only one breed in the ring.

“I’ve had a female champion and a local champion. I’ve won quite a few tup lamb classes but I’ve never had the overall champion. That can sometimes stick to being between the same three of four but to be fair that’s because their stock is better.”

The atmosphere around the sheep pens is intense. This is where the heart of the breed beats so strongly and the passion for coming up with the best runs deep. The concentration of onlookers’ eyes all around the pens is enough to give any judge palpitations.

The historic Muker Silver Band plays throughout the afternoon and the fell races provide colour, from the competitors’ running vests and their seriously reddened cheeks. Mark won a junior race.

“That was a lot of years ago but when I reached the open age I decided it was easier looking after the sheep!”

Mark lives with his wife Linda and nearly one-year-old daughter Jessica at Gatehouse Farm where he and Chris took on the tenancy six years ago. Farming here can seem wonderful when the weather is good but just three miles from the UK’s highest pub at Tan Hill, and with the prospect of being cut off by snow in most winters, there are times when even the most hefted of farmers can question their livelihood.

“We’ve been in Swaledale for generations and without the farm payments we would seriously struggle. We definitely wouldn’t be able to farm at Gatehouse without them as it’s wholly rented. You do go through times when you think is this all worth it, though you know it is because it’s all you want to do. But everything does keep going up in price.

“We still farm at Keld where my mum Barbara and dad have the farm on a tenancy as well as owning a small acreage. They have a campsite and tearoom.

“Chris lives in the village of Keld and he looks after Park Lodge while I look after Gatehouse but when the big times of the year come up such as gathering days we work together, so we both farm it all.

“There are about 300 acres at Keld and around another 200 acres here and then common rights on both farms.

“We knew that just having Park Lodge wasn’t going to be enough for us all and this came up as Linda and I were about to get married. Linda hasn’t moved much as she was brought up just 100 yards away in West Stonesdale. My father-in-law has the next-door farm and we share the common rights.”

Sheep and cattle make up the Rukins’ overall farming operation. They have 1,200 breeding ewes and 50 suckler cows across the two farms.

Lambing starts in April and calving takes place in December. The major ram sales at Hawes and Kirkby Stephen are in October and Mark talks of spending a small fortune on tups every year. The Rukins need around 18-20 rams to serve their ewes, a mission which is not without difficulties.

“It’s certainly getting harder for one farmer on his own to buy a tup because more and more are grouping together as a syndicate. You’re better off having a mate with you who can share the cost. What seems to be happening now is that a tup can make up to £5,000 but once it gets beyond around £7,000 it can make £20,000-£30,000 and more. It’s all a question of just how far you’re prepared to go.”

The Rukins came out of dairying around 17 years ago and started with Limousin cattle. “We have a Limousin bull but we also put a few to the Belgian Blue bull. The beef cattle stores prices are not so good but there is talk of the price turning the corner.

“There’s also talk that the breeding sheep price will be better this back end so there’s some optimism around.”

However, Mark says he is in no rush to increase his livestock numbers in the future.

“That means your feed costs increase and greater numbers doesn’t mean you’re going to make more money.”

Roll up for the 109th show

The village of Muker in the Yorkshire Dales National Park is distinctive for its surrounding upland hay meadows.

These species-rich habitats make for a colourful spectacle that attracts visitors to the area to see them at their best between late May and early July.

While it may not be peak season for taking in the beauty of the meadows, the annual Muker Show offers an alternative draw.

Taking place on Wednesday, September 3, organisers pride themselves in holding a small and friendly traditional agriculture and horticultural show.

Entry is £6 for adults, £1 for children aged five to 15, and free for under fives. Free parking is provided.