Forget Team GB or how well Manchester City are faring in the Premier League right now, as there is one family team that has carved out such a niche for its togetherness in the Lleyn sheep breeding world that fellow breeders refer to them as ‘Team Fort’.
Graham, wife Mandy, daughter Beverley and son Terry make up the quartet that lives and breathes the Welsh breed at Brightonhouse Farm, Whitley Head near Steeton, Keighley.
You won’t see them at the summer agricultural shows unless Graham has been invited to judge, but visit any of the major society sales at Builth Wells, Welshpool and Skipton and you’ll be hard pushed to find one they haven’t won, particularly in recent times.
“We went into the Lleyn breed in 1997,” says Graham. “But we started taking them extremely seriously in 2001 and now have 1,150 breeding ewes.
“We specialise in supplying other breeders with new ewe flocks or rams. We had 45 rams at breed sales last year selling at an average of 1,040 guineas and our top price ever was 5,000 for one that went to the Orkney Islands.
“The Lleyn is a prolific breeding sheep that allows you to keep the females and run as a pure flock without the need to buy in replacements and, from our own experience, eats only about three-quarters of what a Mule would consume.
“We’d had Mule sheep in 1986 and we’d changed to pedigree Suffolks in 1996. We were very successful with them and had built up to a flock of 200 breeding ewes at one time. We finally dispersed the Suffolks in 2011. The Lleyns had taken over in our case a long way before then. They have so many qualities. They’re a very good, economical sheep that has twins, easy to lamb and have adapted to the way we like them with good skins, good conformation and great back ends.
“They are still very much an underrated breed but their ability to produce cracking lamb at the R3L standard grading and above means that not only do we get good prices for the ewes and rams we sell, we also earn good premiums for our fat lambs. They grade so well on the hook, which means you know what you’re going to get for them before they go, and we send most direct to Dunbia and Dawn Meats with just a few going to Bentham livestock market.”
Graham is currently chairman of the North East Lleyn Club, a position he has held for the past decade. The Forts have won the Lleyn flock of the year title many times, presently hold a clutch of breed society show titles and are dedicated not just to their own farming operation but the breed itself.
“We buy the very best rams and we will go anywhere for them. This big choice of genetic material assures all our customers they will get something different. It’s all we’ve bought in for the past 15 years as we’ve never had to buy a single ewe since then. That’s one of the reasons why others can buy from us with real confidence in flock health and it has seen us develop a specialist line in being able to offer sheep farmers a fresh start right bang on the top end of breeding quality. We’ve made a lot of good friends this way as our sheep do exactly what it says on the tin.
“We recently set up a new flock in Belgium, we’ve exported to Southern Ireland and last year we restocked a farm in Northampton with a flock of 200 ewes and another with 20 ewes. We don’t go to the summer shows because we’re too busy either selling females from home, preparing stock for society shows and sales, making sure our grass harvest is completed making great silage and because we have nothing to prove. People who buy from us will compete at the shows, so we’re partly there anyway.”
Brightonhouse Farm is set high above Steeton with land varying from 900 to 1,260ft above sea level. This is where Silsden born and bred Graham and Mandy began their farming life after starting out with a milk round in Keighley, but it wasn’t sheep in the early days.
“We came here when this place was just five acres and started with cattle, but when BSE came along in 1996 we decided to get out. Our land today runs to 450 acres of which we have 250 here, another 100 in Lothersdale, 50 at Carleton near Skipton; and 50 at Otley. It’s pretty much all hillside here and all grass. We go for two and sometimes three cuts for silage and we’re really happy with what we got in 2017. It’s all our own machinery, we don’t use any contractors.”
The Forts’ Lleyns are brought in for eight to 10 weeks prior to lambing that usually gets under way from April 1.
“Our aim is for nearly every ewe to have lambed in three weeks. We get students in to lend a hand and I do all the nights going through until 7am with Terry and Bev coming in about 6-7am. Mandy tags all the lambs and Bev records everything. “We don’t leave anything to chance, every bit of what we do here is traceable and this also means Bev can trace back all of the best lines. Terry and Bev have given their whole lives to the farm, as Mandy and I have too. I’m proud of what we have all achieved.”
Beverley, who also runs the family’s flock website, puts it in basic terms with a big smile on her face.
“We’re sheep mad. It’s such a good breed and wherever we travel around the country, whether it is Ross-on-Wye, Ruthin, Welshpool, Carlisle, Builth Wells, Kelso, Skipton or anywhere else we get the same reaction – ‘Here they are, Team Fort!’ It’s a good feeling people see us that way and it shows we’re doing the right thing.”