WINTER lambing Dorset ewes which can produce lambs twice within 18 months dovetail with the dairy herd and holiday accommodation at Thornbank Farm, Gosforth, on the western fringes of the Lake District.

Cathryn Pritt-Muncaster and her husband Brian Muncaster farm 147 owned acres plus a further 269 acres rented under various agreements in and around Gosforth.

They run a herd of 150 crossbred dairy cows and a flock of 300 registered Poll Dorset ewes which lamb in three batches throughout the winter months - and the early lambs finished off milk and grass make a premium of £45 a head over spring-reared lambs when sold deadweight.

They suit the system on the farm’s good grass-growing sandy loam soil.

A recent diversification to capitalise on their proximity to the western Lake District fells, including Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain, has been two holiday cottages and now there are plans for two luxury holiday pods for this spring along with a gypsy caravan.

Three more pods and a shepherd’s hut will follow next year. Alongside this there is a barn which also provides educational displays of agricultural and cultural items which fits in with the farms Higher Level Stewardship Scheme which provides Educational Access.

The couple’s motto is: “We live for today but farm for tomorrow and we are trying to run a sustainable diversification with an environmental heart and soul.”

Cathryn wanted to be a farmer since she was a young girl. “I didn’t want to be a farmer’s wife - I wanted to be the farmer - and I told myself I would own a farm by the time I was 40. I got the opportunity at Thornbank where the family farmed when I was 39 - and I took it,” said Cathryn.

The Dorset sheep have a long legacy with the family. Cathryn was introduced to the breed in 1985 when her uncle Tyson Dawson first bought a dozen pure-bred ewes from a farm in Yorkshire.

Tyson, who she says wanted something ‘different’, followed the family traditions as the Dawsons bred Herdwicks in Eskdale, and won the Royal Show in the days it toured the country and came to Carlisle with a ewe called Just in Time.

“We put the Dorset on our 500 commercial Mule ewe flock which at the time we were synchronising to lamb before Christmas to catch the early lamb market. We were using Suffolk and Texel rams previously but we soon realised the Dorset-sired lambs were finishing heavier, gaining a month and hitting the high prices as well as cutting the price of feed,” said Cathryn. “They did very well for us on our type of farm.”

Cathryn took a great interest in the Dorsets and stock rams were bought by a breeder on her behalf from the Dorset society’s early sale the May Fair. However, 2001’s foot-and-mouth epidemic left only 60 older ewes, which were wintered away from the farm.

In 2004 Cathryn and Brian registered the flock under the Thornbank prefix, attending the May Fair themselves to buy rams. While the ewes are registered, they are run on a commercial basis.

“The Dorset breed has improved tremendously,” said Cathryn. “When we first sold them deadweight we were getting R3Ls and we weren’t getting above that. Last year most of the lambs sold were classifying were E3L or U 3L and finished off milk and grass which we were really pleased with,” she added.

Cathryn and Brian believe that a ram is half the flock and are prepared to invest in Dorset sires to give length, conformation and good gigots.

With many breeders now Signet recording their flocks she says this has helped the breed to improve. At the Dorset May Fair in Exeter in 2012 they paid 3,000gns for Sherborne Storm bred by Richard and Rob Hole, of Sherborne, Dorset.

The lamb ram Sherborne Storm had won the Centurion Ram of the Year having topped the Signet recording figures with a maternal index of 292 and a terminal sire index of 376, putting it well within the top one per cent for the breed. The ram had a muscle score of 3.21.

Other rams which have bred well in the flock have been Blackhill Trevor from Wiltshire breeder Jim Dufosee and Riverview Torque, bred in Northern Ireland by Trevor Knox.

Oliver Tree Pete, again bred in Northern Ireland by Raymond Hill, was a gimmer lamb breeder and was still breeding in the flock until he was nine years old. Byeways Xtra Special, bred by Joe Larder, of Somerset and again with Riverview bloodlines left its mark, as did Gortleigh Ulysees from Yorkshire-based Edwin Pocock’s flock dispersal sale.

Another good breeder has been Poorton Zest, bred by Fooks Brothers in Dorset.

The Thornbank ewes are flushed on good grass for three weeks and run with teaser tups before the breeding rams are first loosed with all the ewes in June.

Lambing starts in mid-November, which leaves the September grass flush before housing for the predominantly Friesian type cows with some Jersey and Fleckvieh crosses, which produce high butterfat and protein milk for a cheese contract with First Milk’s Lake District Creamery in Aspatria.

This year 150 ewes held to the rams in June and were lambed in November.

The rams are run with the ewes again in August and October.

The ewes are lambed inside for a tight three-week period. The remainder of the ewes lamb in January and March. Brian organises the tupping and the lambing making sure the lambing periods are kept tight.

November and January-born lambs are sheared in the spring and they grow on faster because they do not suffer from heat stress in the summer months.

By May, if a ewe has had three chances with the ram and not produced a lamb she is sold.

Some of the ewes can lamb twice in 18 months. The rams are put out when some of the ewes have lambs at foot, which helps them maintain a good condition for tupping.

“We tup the ewe lambs to lamb as hoggs and they are very good mothers compared with other breeds and they are so quiet,” said Cathryn.

“The early lambs sold off their mothers are making £120 to £130 a head deadweight to Kepak. This is a £45 a head premium on later lambs. The early lambing helps cash flow - income can pay for the fertiliser.

“We have pretty low inputs. If the weather is bad we can give the ewes some concentrate and twin lambs sometimes get creep feed,” she said.

Most breeding stock is sold privately to repeat buyers and because they are commercially run they go on to do well.

Cathryn has flown the flag for the breed in the North, being a founding member of the North of England Dorset Breeders’ Club as well as exhibiting at shows.

As the breed began to gain popularity in the North of England and Scotland, several Northern breeders began exhibiting at the Great Yorkshire Show, which resulted in classes for the breed about ten years ago.

This year, from July 14 to 16, the Dorset Horn and Poll Dorset Sheep Breeders Association is hosting its Annual National Show at the Great Yorkshire Show.

In 2019 for the first time Dorset sheep classes have been introduced to the Westmorland County Show and are well-supported.

The Northern Dorset Breeders show and sale is held at Gisburn in early August, with the society sale and show at Carlisle in late August.