Blazing a trail for the ‘solid’ Cheviot
Joshua Atkinson’s family holding supports a large number of Swaledale sheep, but the young farmer chose the North Country Cheviot when he established his own small flock in 2016. Reporter Wendy Short called in to see him at Rose Tree Farm, Forest-in-Teesdale.
OSHUA Atkinson finished a two-year course in agriculture in the summer of 2019 and while he enjoyed his studies, he has no plans to return to full-time education. The 18-year-old is fully committed to farming at home and wanted something different from the Swaledales which are hefted to his family’s rented hill farm in Forest-in-Teesdale.
“The North Country Cheviots have lambed twice,” says Mr Atkinson, who works alongside his father, Reuben.
“It has proved to be a very good hill breed and just as hardy as the Swaledale.
“It does have a reputation for being lively and the sheep would rather go through you than round you.
“Nevertheless the ewes make excellent mothers and will stick with their lambs when they need to be handled unlike some breeds which can be flighty in that situation.
“The Cheviot is a large, solid sheep and I am not surprised that it has grown in popularity in recent years. I may have been one of the first in this area to keep it.”
The Widdybank flock was started with the purchase of 25 ewes which came from a sale at Lockerbie, with a Northouse tup (Hawick) used in the initial stages.
All of the gimmer lambs that have been born so far have been retained, while most tup lambs’ development is assessed so that the best examples can be selected for sale as breeding stock.
The most recent home-bred tup shearlings will either be put forward at Lockerbie Mart or sold to private buyers.
The lambing of the North Country Cheviots starts on April 1 and lasts for about six weeks.
Historically the ewes have been lambed in the buildings to simplify individual sire recording, but the policy may change for 2020.
“For the forthcoming season, I may lamb the ewes outdoors depending on the weather, to see how the change of management will affect flock performance,” says Mr Atkinson, who is a member of the Staindrop branch of the Young Farmers’ Club.
“The ewes will usually achieve a lambing percentage of about 150, after being flushed on the meadows. The tup is removed before Christmas.”
A small quantity of concentrate feed is offered to the newly-lambed ewes, to ensure they have a plentiful supply of milk. Weaning takes place in the first week in September.
“Some lambs are sold as stores but there will be a group that is finished at home,” he explains.
“The wether lambs have been sold deadweight for the past decade, with Barnard Castle mart used as a collection point. They leave the farm at about 40kgs starting about Christmas time and will reach an average of 18kgs deadweight.
“The majority will be classified as R3L on the carcase grading system. Deadweight selling gives us a better idea of the price that we will receive and in our opinion it is the right marketing system for our type of hill wether lamb.
“I have not yet reached the stage where I can sell surplus females from the Cheviot flock but I will get to that point in the near future.
“Showing would provide a good shop window for my stock, but it is not something that particularly interests me and there never seems to be enough time.”
Mr Atkinson completed a level three course in agriculture at Newton Rigg agricultural college in Cumbria last summer.
“I enjoyed college and my favourite subject was livestock nutrition. It was also interesting to learn more about the science involved in looking after the animals.
“But my real love is practical farming. Since leaving college I have completed my trailer driver training with Utass (Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Services) and I have also been on a shearing course.
“We clip all of our own sheep and we also contract-shear for some of our neighbours. I also supplement my income by shepherding for other local farmers.
“I have not regretted my choice of the North Country Cheviot. I would love to have my own farm one day, but at present the idea seems out of reach financially.
“Nobody knows what the future will hold for hill farming and there is some negativity surrounding the industry, although I feel fairly optimistic.
“My strategy is to stay focused and do everything to the best of my ability. Hopefully I will continue to be able to farm and make it my lifelong career.”
BELTED GALLOWAY HERD
THE family farm has recently taken on the tenancy of Widdybank Farm, which is part of the Upper Teesdale Nature Reserve.
Due to environmental scheme requirements, it is stipulated that only native cattle breeds are permitted to graze its fells and the Atkinsons opted for the Belted Galloway.
The breed is run in addition to the Continental cattle which are kept on the better land at Rose Tree.
The herd was established with the purchase of nine cows from a dispersal sale held at York.
Meanwhile, a stock bull was sourced from the noted Barwise herd at Appleby. The Beltie heifers calve in December, with the cows following on in mid-January. The aim is to finish the calving period before lambing begins.
To date, all the heifer calves have been retained to increase the herd size which currently stands at 50 females.
However, surplus breeding heifers may be sold from next year onward.
Fresh bloodlines have been added in the form of Clifton Jura, which was bought privately from the Bell family of Southwick, Dumfries.
The harsh environment of the hill land makes it favourable to sell bull calves straight off their dams and these generally go to private customers, with a percentage sold to produce native breed beef for a farm shop.
“Belties are ideal for farming in Upper Teesdale,” says Mr Atkinson.
“They are extremely hardy and suitable for out-wintering, although as part of the environmental scheme rules they must be housed from November until April.
“The cows are quiet and they have the ability to convert poor forage into good quality meat. We also find them to be quiet and easy to handle.”