Lake District farmer Mary Brough talks to Jennifer MacKenzie about sheep farming on the fells

TRADITIONAL hill sheep are the backbone of the business for third generation Lake District farmer Mary Brough.

Mary took over the family farm, Chapel House, Uldale, 32 years ago, with its 380 acres of mostly marginal land at the back of Skiddaw with fell rights on Uldale Common.

As the only child of Pop and Mollie (nee Trafford) Ashburner, her parents urged Mary to establish another career, which she did and she qualified and then worked as a pharmacist – but her heart was always in hill farming.

When Mary took on the farm that her grandfather bought in 1942, she continued the tradition and bloodlines of the flock of 500 Swaledale ewes, which can be traced back to those early days.

A slight shift from the traditional path in recent years has been the addition of flocks of pure-bred Welsh Badger Face ewes and Texels, which have dovetailed into the sheep enterprise.

Mary and her husband, Ken, took over Chapel House in 1989 with their three young children. Ken’s family pedigree dairy farming involvement took him off the farm to work so Mary has run Chapel House with his help and that of numerous other part-timers.

“I always wanted to farm and, while I qualified as a pharmacist, I always knew I would get the opportunity,” said Mary, who gets help from several people including son, John.

The sheep are the core of the business. A herd of 50 continental suckler cows was sold three years ago to help ease the workload.

Pure-bred Welsh Badger Face ewes have been added to the flock

Pure-bred Welsh Badger Face ewes have been added to the flock

The only cattle on the farm are dairy young stock – Holsteins and British Blue crosses – reared for their son John who runs a dairy herd at Bolton-low-Houses, near Wigton, as well as some Blue Grey bullocks for environmental grazing on the fell.

Ken works with John at Bolton Cottage Farm, Bolton-low-Houses, which is run as a separate business.

The main flock of sheep at Chapel House are the Swaledales, which have been reduced to 550 ewes and followers. There are grazing rights for 220 on the fell in the summer and 70 in the winter. They are gathered off the fell four times a year – for shearing, weaning, tupping and lambing.

The farm’s 380 all-grass acreage, which is in a ring fence apart from parcels of land nearby at Sandale and Binsey, also carries up to 70 Welsh Badger Face ewes, 30 pure Texels and 15 crossing type Bluefaced Leicesters. The number of ewes lambed, however, have never topped 1,000 and they are likely to decrease with environmental scheme commitments.

The land is marginal with up to 60 acres cut for silage for the sheep and cattle.

While the main Swaledale flock was taken in the contiguous Foot-and-Mouth cull 20 years ago, the hoggs were wintered away, saving the bloodlines. Half the Swaledales are bred pure with the remainder crossed with home-bred Bluefaced Leicester tups to produce North of England Mule gimmer lambs for sale.

Mary sells Swaledale rams and females at Cockermouth where she picked up a third prize for a pen of ewes last year. She buys her stock rams at Kirkby Stephen where she is prepared to invested up to £4,000 in the right sheep. Leicester tups are bought at Kirkby Stephen and Carlisle and she will again pay good money for a stock ram.

North of England Mule gimmer lambs in Uldale – Picture: Mary Brough

North of England Mule gimmer lambs in Uldale – Picture: Mary Brough

Mule gimmer lambs are sold through the Cockermouth sale and lastly year’s crop of more than 200 made the event’s sixth highest average of £107.95, with the sheep always selling to regular buyers.

The Badger Face sheep started as a hobby for John who bought some at a rare breeds sale, however, Mary says they are a commercially viable little sheep requiring little input.

Some are crossed with the Texel and they produce fine-grained, sweet meat, which she is hoping she can find a local outlet for once the hospitality industry re-opens.

The small Texel flock breeds tups for use on the farm, some of them being used on the poorer end of the fell sheep – the Texel Swaledale cross, which is proving an increasingly popular. Some rams are also sold. Wether lambs are either sold store as they were in 2020 or they are finished and sold through Cockermouth Mart or deadweight.

Lambing starts in mid February with the Texels, followed by the Swaledales crossed with the Leicester in the third week in March and the fell sheep in mid April.

Lambing percentages for scanned ewes are 179 for the Swaledales to the Leicester and 177 for the Texels and Badger Faces. The fell flock usually scans at around 150 per cent.

The ewes are lambed outside with the exception of the Blue-faced Leicesters, those carrying triplets and any with problems. They are turned out as quickly as possible after lambing.

One of Mary’s best tools for outdoor lambing and sheep work is a leg crook – rather than a neck crook – which she says is much better for catching ewes. That and her two working collies, Cap and Fred.

Mary is passionate about hill farming and maintaining the uplands for livestock production and the environment. She records her daily work with the farm’s livestock through a new-found passion, photography using her mobile phone, which she posts on social media.

She has more than 4,000 followers on her Instagram account and she has many regular followers on other social media sites.

“Because I have loved this life on my hill farm I would like to see they way of life continue so I post photos of my day to day work to let people see what I do and I answer questions about it from the general public,” she said.

“The farm is very traditional – I haven’t altered it much in my time,” she added. The farm provides a scenic backdrop to Mary’s livestock photographs from the fell to the lower ground, which includes Chapel House reservoir and Overwater lake.

Mary, along with other farmers with fell rights as part of the Stewardship agreement, has been grazing traditional cattle on the fell.

She has been buying Blue Grey bullocks from Longtown Mart for the environmental grazing on the fell, which have the added bonus of having a quiet temperament as there are walkers on the fell. They are run on the fell for two summers and sold finished to Tony Harrison butchers Cockermouth.

While the Brough’s daughters are not involved with agriculture, they are just as keen to see the farm continue to be run by the family.

Daughter Anna Brough is a paediatric consultant at the Great North Children’s Hospital in Newcastle and Edith Chapman is a partner in an accountancy firm also in Newcastle.