LAMBING 2020 has recently started for this year’s Northern Farmers of the Year - and also Sheep Farmers of the Year - Caroline and Andrew Hunter ,who farm more than 2,250 acres of predominantly tenanted hill land near Bellingham in North Northumberland.

With more than 1,600 ewes to lamb this season, the backbone of the business are the two flocks of Hexham blackfaces.

These are farmed on the BAE Systems-owned The Steel, with 930 ewes on 800 acres which has been in Andrew’s family for three generations, and The Carrick, which is Ministry of Defence land on the Otterburn Ranges, which runs another flock of 750 ewes and has also been rented by Caroline’s family for three generations.

With Andrew and Caroline’s 16-year-old son Lewis now on a Newton Rigg College apprenticeship with Hexham Campus and 12-year-old daughter Pippa both keen on the stock succession may follow, as both tenancies afford the next generation an opportunity to do so.

Working alongside Andrew, Caroline and Lewis in busy times are Kevin Ridley and Richard Postlethwaite, and with 75 suckler cows alongside the sheep enterprise innovations which can make the workload easier and farm more efficient are key to moving the business forward.

Andrew is keen to say that his grandfather’s stockmanship skills initiated the flocks genetics, while his father during the 1970s and 1980s greatly improved The Steel’s infrastructure, particularly the sheds and quality of the ground for grass growing, with The Carrick mainly heather and high hill land 16 miles from The Steel.

Both Andrew and Caroline are very grateful that their parents gave them such a good start to farming, although Caroline jokes that her father actively encouraged her away from the farm as a teenager, while her grandfather bought her her first Border Collie to train and work with at only seven or eight years of age.

Caroline soon found her voice and followed her vocation to farm and both she and Andrew hope they can give Lewis and Pippa the same chance to farm if they so desire.

For this business going forward the aim is not to get bigger but do more of what they can right. Farming the 20 or so Blue-Faced Leicesters is just one example of pushing the upland hill farm to its limit.

However, investing in top-end genetics gives the flock a boost. The Hunters have sold tups up to £20,000 in the sheep Mecca of Hawes, but appreciate that they need to spend large sums themselves, such as on last year’s Blackface tup at £11,000 with Toft House breeding, to then be able to improve their own genetics in the mules they breed from the Blackies.

With sons from these top tups used on the flocks, previous investments of say £12,000 in a tup have returned more than £20,000 in tup sales from his sons, for example.

With The Steel and Carrick flocks now sharing tups Caroline says the two flocks are as alike now as they have been over the years.

Lambs are sold from July through to January when they are ready rather than chasing the market, which leads to market fluctuations, although rationing with the aid of Stephen Turnbull of Davidson Feeds has led to fewer problems across the whole farm.

Feeding the stock on this large hill farm was the focus of an article in November 2018 of The Northern Farmer, and this farm’s attention to detail was uncovered then in terms of feeding a TMR based on silage analysis and then creating a bespoke meal which sees ewes just before lambing in ‘good nick’ despite one of the wettest winters on record.

The TMR and meal are often fed outside in the elements through a network of walk/ drive-through troughs across the farm and it sees no sorting of feed and no gorging on either (which used to occur with nuts). Colostrum quality has also improved and prolapses have been noticeably reduced.

Having seemingly found the recipe for success in terms of feeding the sheep, with a ram nut created for the tups that puts them in prime condition. Andrew and Caroline are now looking on other improvements in efficiency.

That was one reason for sheep numbers rising and sucklers dropping by around 25 head, as the sucklers had to be housed for too much of the year.

Latterly the farms have tapped into the Countryside Small Grant Schemes. At The Steel a curved race and squeeze crush have been installed with an enforcing gate which offers far more safety to the operator and reduces staff demands.

With high health a farm priority and preventive measures taken alongside Dave Parkins and the Intake Veterinary team, the beef herd is BVD and Lepto vaccinated so good handling facilities make routines easier.

A grant at Carrick has seen a Scot squeeze handing system with a magic eye fitted, which sees large numbers of sheep dealt with in a very timely manner.

As Andrew says, the nature of the two farms and the staff and topography constraints do not allow for the team to wait for a good weather day to carry out essential tasks, so indoor and covered handing areas with lighting have proved vital. Mobile penning has also been grant-aided to deal with sheep further afield.

With lambing spanning two months and someone in the lambing shed 24-7 for the duration the Hunters take the view that twins are manageable on the Blackies but that with triplets one lamb will always be compromised in the early stages and a lamb that is not full of milk very soon after its born will forever be on a back foot.

So Caroline says rearing the third lamb by hand initially is a much better option, and they soon take to the milk bar.

Scanning in January saw lambs at 200 per cent, although this was a mix of singles, twins and triplets rather than just the ideal twins.

“If only multiple births of more than two could be avoided then it would avoid newborn lambs being nipped of milk and feed,” said Andrew.

“The later sold lambs in the season always stem from those multiple births!” he added, to Caroline’s agreement.

Other innovative practices that come to the fore on this farm include Caroline regularly carrying out faecal worm egg counts – which meant last years there was no fluke treatment at the Steel in the back end - saving time and money.

The lambing shed is underlaid with wood chips sourced from Andrew’s brother Chris, who runs a forestry business, and overlaid with shavings, with the pine in the wood chip being naturally antibacterial.

The whole shed is bedded initially before lambing and then cleaned out at the end of lambing, with a skid steer and farming with such numbers and so little labour means most operations have now been mechanised. Powder disinfectant is then applied at pen changeover.

The Hunters believe being crowned overall champions at The Northern Farmers Awards is an achievement beyond their wildest dreams, while in reality the steely determination, inherent stockmanship and valued team effort that this husband-and-wife team display is testament to a dogged determination to focus on the little things to make sure the bigger things are possible.