Sleepless nights have begun for one hill farmer this autumn as he prepares for what is his most important time of the year. October is a vital month for all Swaledale sheep breeders as the major sales of breeding ewes and tups held throughout the north of England determine the success or failure of this year’s livestock crop.
Hawes Auction Mart has already played host to the sale of 30,000 North of England Mules and the Blue Faced Leicester annual tup sale during September and today 6,000 Swaledale gimmer lambs and 1,000 gimmer shearlings will be sold. The earlier sales are impressive for their huge quantity, but the annual show and sale of Swaledale tups where the really big prices are bid is looming large in all breeders’ minds.
Steven Porter of Summer Lodge Farm near Low Row 900ft up in the heart of Swaledale is the vice chairman of the Swaledale Sheep Breeders’ Assocation’s ‘B’ District and farms in partnership with his brothers Bryan and Greg, his son William and Greg’s son Christopher. The partnership runs a flock of 1,200 Swaledale ewes, of which 400 are put to the Blue Faced Leicester tup to produce the popular North of England Mule.
Sales of Blue Faced Leicesters, Mules and Swaledales are all vital to the Porters, who also run a suckler herd of 50 pure Limousins; supplement their farming income with a building and roofing business run by Greg and Christopher; have three holiday cottages at the family farm at Low Oxnop; and a bed and breakfast enterprise at Summer Lodge, but it is the tup sale that gives Steven the most palpitations. Prices can vary from hundreds of pounds to five-figure sums. The Swaledale world record tup price is £101,000 set in 2002 and last year £92,000 was paid by Paul and Sue Hallam of Derbyshire for Christine Clarkson of Muker’s ram Kisdon Lovely.
‘The tup sales and others at least take hill farmers’ minds off the worries we all have over Brexit,’ says Steven. ‘You’d have thought as you get older this time should get better because you’re more used to it but I always find it difficult to sleep for the weeks leading up to the sale as I’m concerned over what the tups will do, whether they will be all right and whether they will sell.’
‘Breeding quality ewes or high performing tups is what we’re all about, but we try not to rely on tup money to live as we tend to have a habit of spending it on other tups. If you don’t spend then you tend to go backwards, like football teams.’
The Porters will sell 20 tups at Hawes later this month – and will look to buy four. They have a strong pedigree both as a family and in their sheep. Steven’s father John was chairman of the ‘B’ District for over 20 years and their Swaledales have won the supreme championship four times at Muker Show, the show Steven refers to as their World Cup.
‘If you win at Muker you’re at the top, but that doesn’t mean everything when it comes to the tup sale. We’ve had some really good prices over the years, but that isn’t a guarantee.”
“The draw is important. You want yours to be drawn in the middle and that’s where we are this year. If you’re in the first three or the last three out of the 900 it can be very stressful.
“Someone who waits to buy until the finish is very brave because he or she could risk going home with nothing. That’s not good news when you know you need your team for this coming year. We rely on the four we buy to perform alongside our existing tups for the next five or six years, so it’s nerve wracking.”
Steven and wife Carol moved to Summer Lodge, three miles from Oxnop, twenty years ago. It is held on a farm business tenancy that runs to 750 acres, of which most is moorland that runs up to 1,700ft. The family base at Low Oxnop where Steven’s parents John and Annie and brother Bryan live has 400 acres in-bye with moorland attached. The farm has been in the family since the mid-1800s. Additional acreage includes a further 120 acres purchased in the past decade; grazing licenced ground on Gunnerside Estate; and 50 acres that was Carol’s father’s at Healaugh near Reeth.
While breeding sheep provides their main income the Porters sell Swaledale and Mule wether lambs deadweight. Their cattle operation sees them breeding their own replacements and selling store bulls through Leyburn Mart.
Steven’s son William, 25, started on the farm straight from school. Daughter Rebecca, 28, works in Richmond. William began following the family’s success with Swaledales early, taking the supreme championship at Tan Hill Show when he was just 16.
The Porters have a varied mix of enterprises; but the outcome of Brexit is omnipresent. “We rely on the payments we receive from Europe, plus we might lose our meat market abroad. If we lost out in both of those ways I’m not at all sure whether the next generations would survive up here.’
■ The Two-Day show and sale of registered Swaledale shearling rams at Hawes takes place October 25-26, but the aged rams and ram lamb sale has changed to an evening sale on Thursday, October 12, at 5pm.