It's quality that counts not size

Small is beautiful. Chris Berry talks to a farmer who has large scale success with his sheep and cattle

"We couldn't have really done any better, when I heard that we had won I just couldn't believe it." This is how Lester Peel describes the latest, and for him the most satisfying, in a long line of achievements with his Suffolk sheep. His flock was named Northern Counties champions an award he cherishes dearly.

"The Suffolk sheep society has an open competition nationally and in the regions. We enter every year because it's nice to see how you're progressing. We've had one or two prizes in the past but nothing as good as this."

What is remarkable is that the Peels – Lester, his wife Susan and son James – only farm on 67 acres. That's not much more than a smallholding and their flock comprises just 35 ewes.

They also run a herd of 27 Hereford cattle where equally remarkable has been their return to pedigree success after losing their livestock during the foot and mouth year of 2001.

"We had the native pedigree breeds of Suffolks and Herefords before foot and mouth took us out, so when we re-stocked we started as we had before. Everything here is bred naturally. We buy stock in very rarely. I would like to get the Suffolks up to 50 breeding females but it is a long process because we cull very hard. You have to do that to keep the quality."

Lester, of Greystone Farm, Over Silton believes that one of the main reasons behind the current crop of excellent ewes and lambs is also down to the rams. "The ram we are using at the moment is from Ireland, although we also buy rams from Northumberland. This Irish tup has had a major influence on our females.

"We like sheep that conform to a breed standard and have real character. I like to see them with their heads up and looking perky."

Lester also had an exceptional finish to his agricultural show season. The Peels took the breed championship in the last six shows they entered including Nidderdale, where Lester grew up. He farmed between Bewerley and Greenhow, having moved to Pateley Bridge from Leeds when he was three years old. The final show of the season was the Masham Sheep Fair event held over two days.

"At Masham we took the Supreme Championship, beating the Texels. It's open to debate whether Texels, Charollais or Suffolk are the best, but this year the farmers have put Suffolks to the top. There has been a major swing back to the Suffolk and I think that's because they get the weight quicker than other breeds. Every Suffolk breeder needs to concentrate on good skins and a good carcass. If we all get those elements right I think Suffolks will be top again next year."

The ram that won Lester his Supreme title at Masham was sold early on in the year to a neighbouring farmer. But Lester had arranged with the ram's new owner that he would show him this season. The value of showing and entering all types of breed competition is something that Lester holds in high regard.

"We meet a lot of people at shows who then come and buy privately. Apart from three, we haven't marketed our sheep at all this year."

The Hereford herd isn't shown, although there is a possibility that James may do so in the future. "We have no problem in selling them. We usually take them to around 17-18 months and sell them as stores for others to finish.

"I think people realise what they have been missing taste-wise once they have tasted Hereford beef, or Hereford crossed with either Simmental or Limousin as we produce.

"We are building up the herd and at present we have 15 calving. We would like to get that to 20. That's about as far as we can go with our acreage."

Making 67 acres viable involves more than concentrating on sheep and cattle breeding at Greystone Farm. Susan works full-time and Lester turns his hand to gardening and recently put in a new cattle handling system for a farmer nearby.

The couple also started a B&B business five years ago.

"When Susan's parents had this farm the vet that used to visit was Alf Wight, the real James Herriot. That's been quite a pull for holidaymakers."

Here on the western edge of the North York Moors, 800 feet above sea level, the Peels are sitting pretty right now. But Lester knows you are only as good as your last competition.

"We have bought a new ram from the Waltons' Roseden flock in Northumberland. It is always something of an unknown quantity when you're using a new ram, but we are looking forward to next year's lambing."

CW 18/12/10