ALL pedigree sheep producers are enthusiastic about their breed of choice and none more so than Keith Stones, who runs a flock of North Country Cheviots near Richmond in North Yorkshire.

Mr Stones is a fifth-generation farmer at Nun Cote Nook, with the farm name used as the prefix for his flock of 250 NC Cheviot ewes. While some 50 breeding rams are sold each year, Mr Stones primarily considers himself a producer of strong females, which are marketed as gimmer shearlings.

These meet good demand and consignments have been exported to several countries, including Estonia and Ireland. Tups have sold to 3,500gns and females have twice held past records for the highest-price ewe at Society sales, with a top of 3,200 gns.

“Any new tup must have sound feet, teeth and testicles,” said Mr Stones, whose 300-acre farm rises to 1,000 feet above sea level. “It must also have strong feminine characteristics and the ability to contribute qualities which need to be enhanced in my own genetic lines. Another very important trait is milkiness, as the aim is for each ewe to successfully rear two lambs.

“Selecting a new tup is not always about paying high prices. One of my previous tups was purchased for 280gns and at the Great Yorkshire was placed above a rival which had been a champion at Lockerbie and had sold for 5,000gns.

“The same tup also bred the overall upland champion at this year’s Westmorland County Show. It is about having an eye for an animal which will do well in the show ring but which will also give good performance in a challenging hill situation.”

Among the flock’s show successes are breed championships at the Great Yorkshire on several occasions, including 2018, as well as reserve position at this year’s event. The Westmorland County is a particular favourite with the family and their sheep have in the past won the upland interbreed title in seven out of eight successive years.

The NC Cheviot has a reputation for being a ‘lively’ animal and Mr Stones, a council member of the North Country Cheviot Sheep Society, admitted that the breed was ‘alert and spirited’.

“The temperament works in its favour in the show ring, because the Cheviot looks flashy and tends to draw attention in any multi-breed contest.

“It also means that the lambs are very thrifty and are usually up on their feet within minutes of being born. Their wool is of high value; it is white, with a soft texture that makes it ideal for producing Scottish tweeds.”

The NC Cheviot is divided into three distinct types. The Caithness is a larger, heavier animal, while the hill version is a smaller, more rugged individual.

Mr Stones favours the third type, which is the Border Park, produced from an infusion of bloodlines from flocks in the Scottish borders.

Established in 1992, the Nun Cote Nook Cheviots are managed on a strictly commercial basis and are reared on a largely grass-based diet, running alongside a small flock of unregistered Texels. The Cheviot ewes, which weigh an average 100kgs, are housed from mid-March and lamb inside in April, after which they are turned out within just a couple of days. The annual pedigree lambing percentage ranges between 180 and 190.

It has become increasingly common to put the Cheviot ewe to a Blue-faced Leicester tup, to produce the Cheviot Mule. Mr Stones himself has a specific reason for including a selection of these crossbreds, which he describes as “a tight-skinned animal with a large, high-quality carcase.

“Cash flow is a constant concern on a hill farm,” he stated. “Our business income experiences a dip in late summer and it pays to have batches of Cheviot Mule lambs that are ready for market in July and August. These are usually put forward at the local auction mart but they have also been sold deadweight, generally achieving U grade specification.”

The future for the Cheviot looks bright according to Mr Stones, who is assisted by his five children and his wife Elaine, who also manages a small camping ground and a tearoom on site. Son, Tommy, is a previous Northern Young Farmer of the Year awards finalist.

“The sheep industry has been depressed, but poor prices will generally affect the finished lamb market first and then the commercial breeding sheep.

“It will take longer for the pedigree market to come under similar pressure, but I believe that quality will always sell.”

Footrot vaccine

A footrot vaccine has been used across the flock for the past seven years with great success.

“Footrot disease is most often passed from ewes to lambs on pasture, which starts a cycle of infection,” said Mr Stones. “Lameness is now very rare on the farm, but I will continue to vaccinate due to the risk of re-infection from bought-in stock and disease transfer at shows.”