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Moving away from the feed bag while breeding an ‘easier-care’ closed flock

Livestock – FG | 25 January, 2008

THE Delbridge family has been keeping sheep at Blindwell Farm, North Molton, Devon, a 450-acre hill unit, ever since the land was enclosed from the moor in the 1860s.

Swaledale ewes

Credit: © FARMERS GUARDIAN please contact 01772 799445.

Swaledale ewes lamb outside from early April.

In fact, the handful of Exmoor Horns Peter Delbridge keeps alongside his commercial flock of North County Mules directly descend from the ewes that originally stocked the farm.

But that is not to say things have not changed in the last 150 years – progress is continual and the newest targets Mr Delbridge has set are to ‘divorce himself from the feed bag’ and develop an ‘easier-care’ female.

There are currently 820 breeding ewes on the farm – 420 North Country Mules, 350 Swaledales and 50 Exmoor Horns. The aim is to maintain a closed flock, buying in only a handful of rams each year.

Therefore, as few Swaledales are kept pure as possible, just enough to maintain the flock, with the rest crossed to the Bluefaced Leicester to produce Mule replacements.

The Mules have traditionally been crossed with either a Suffolk or a Texel, although Mr Delbridge is steadily replacing the Texel rams with a Charollais, arguing they produce a heavier carcase. The best lambs are finished off the farm, with the smaller ones sold on as stores.

“I pick the lambs from the top to finish and from October sell store lambs from the bottom,” he said. “The idea is that by January/February time we meet somewhere in the middle with all lambs sold.

Peter Delbridge

Credit: © FARMERS GUARDIAN please contact 01772 799445.

Peter Delbridge and sheepdog Dora.

“I don’t normally like to carry more than 380 to 400 lambs into the New Year, as it’s not unheard of to have really bad blizzards up here.”

The farm, situated in a Severely Disadvantaged Area, rises from 1,000 to 1,400ft.

Low yields make growing corn unfeasible and, therefore, the farm is all permanent grassland bar 20 acres of forage crops, either swede or kale. These have become important for finishing lambs, as Mr Delbridge aims to use less bought- in feed, offering none at all to any lambs sold this season.

All Mule wethers are sold finished, with pure Swaledale wethers sold straight off the ewe for the Mediterranean market at 10-12kg deadweight to a local collection centre.

Ewe lambs kept for replacements are usually wintered at home, but this year 140 Mules were sent to a dairy farm near Exeter at a cost of 50p a week.

Mr Delbridge said he could have found grazing for a little less, but this arrangement included someone else checking on them.

“It was a way of getting rid of mouths here without selling them badly and giving a bit of slack at home.

“Hopefully things will pick up and it will pay off,” he said. “They will come back better sheep and we’ll get better fat lambs here.”

Availability and cost of labour means Mr Delbridge and partner Carol manage the bulk of the work, along with daughters Charlotte (12) and Katie (4).

Contractors are used for shearing, scanning, silaging and planting the forage crops, while two sheepdogs also play an important role.

Labour is just one of the motivators behind developing an ‘easier care, lower maintenance lowland ewe’.

Mr Delbridge is one of nine farmers involved in the South West-based Sheep Improvement Group, which has already imported genetics from South Africa and Canada and is waiting with anticipation to see the first crop of lambs.

The aim is for a ewe with good feet and worm resistance that sheds its wool and produces lambs that finish off grass.

Mr Delbridge said the project was ‘in the embryonic stages’ and they were considering many different options.

“We’re having a good look round because we can’t go on as we are,” he said.