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Forgotten heroes of agriculture

A Blackface ewe with its mule offspring.
A Blackface ewe with its mule offspring.

The winter just gone seems to have been longer than normal, but perhaps that is just a sign of me growing older.

Whatever the truth, it is great to see nature waking back up, and what better sign of the coming of spring than the arrival of newborn lambs?

A Blackfaced tup.

A Blackfaced tup.

The Northumbrian sheep are inseparable from the landscape, whether on the remote hills or more sheltered grazing lands.

Many can recognise the rugged hill breeds, the Cheviot and Blackfaced sheep, and it’s easy to think that these hardy animals, while making productive use of the wild moors, at best will produce mediocre wool and meat. But nothing could be further from the truth.

These sheep are indeed tough breeds, able to survive in the wild hills with minimum help and to find nourishment from the poorest quality vegetation. They are very good mothers, usually giving birth with no assistance, and can supply milk even from the meagre diet found on the higher ground.

They also stand at the top of the ‘Sheep Pyramid’, which forms the basis of the UK’s lamb production. This is a sophisticated breeding system, unique to Britain, which maintains both high quality and consistency in the nation’s sheep stock.

A mule ewe with its 'Suffolk' black faced offspring.

A mule ewe with its 'Suffolk' black faced offspring.

It all starts with the hill sheep. Each year breeding ewes are selected for the draft ewe mart. Usually about five years old and having had three or four lambs, they are bought by farmers with lower lying land.

They are crossed with, typically, a Bluefaced Leicester tup, which produces a hybrid known as a mule. The mule combines the hardiness of the hill breed with the meat producing attributes of the Leicester – effectively the best of both worlds.

The mule ewes are kept for further cross-breeding. They are moved to lower level farms, where they are crossed with a meat producing ‘specialist’, such as a Texel or Suffolk. This combines the best qualities of the two to produce the ideal animal for eating with the self-reliant nature of the hill sheep.

All the offspring from the mule are destined for the fat mart and provide the bulk of the lamb that is eaten in the country. The hill breeds are critical to this pyramid.

The Culley book.

The Culley book.

The hybrid sheep, if bred amongst themselves, produce inconsistent offspring. The continual flow of genetic material from the hill breeds is essential to the success of the UK’s whole sheep breeding process. Indeed, every lamb from the pyramid that is sold for food is never more than two generations away from a pure-bred hill sheep.

The hill farmer gets a much better price for his breeding draft ewes than if selling to the fat mart, while the process keeps the hill flocks young and healthy by encouraging a balance between youth and age within the breeding ewes.

We can thank the Culley brothers for developing the basis of this programme in the late 18th century. Building on the work of Robert Bakewell, from Leicestershire, they created the Border Leicester breed and went on to develop the cross-breeding we use today. (If you are interested in this, I can strongly recommend the book Counting Sheep by local farmer Philip Walling).

The Culleys were at the forefront of the country’s Agricultural Revolution. George, Matthew and James were brought up in County Durham, but took advantage of the lower rents in North Northumberland to take on a farm at Fenton, near Wooler.

They had been learning from agriculturists who were developing new ways of growing crops and creating new breeds. At Fenton, they took this to new heights.

The increase in productivity they achieved led them to expand the number of farms they managed. By the early 19th century they were wealthy men, able to buy Fowberry Tower and Coupland Castle, which the family held until the 1920s.

As a result, North Northumberland played a central part in changes in the nation’s farming and our region was the ‘go to’ place to see the best agricultural practices.

George was asked to survey agricultural practices in Northumberland and recruited John Bailey, of Chillingham. Their report became an essential guide to the best farming methods.

Today, we are used to people being expert in one field, but the Culleys, as with so many of that period, dealt with a wide range of subjects.

They studied crop rotations to eliminate inefficient practices of leaving fields fallow. They introduced lime to improve the quality of marginal land. Drainage and field boundaries were not overlooked and the best machinery for ploughing, tilling and sowing were evaluated.

The Culleys are truly forgotten heroes of Northumberland and it was partly to try to remedy this that I have republished George Culley and John Bailey’s 1805 work, A General View of the Agriculture of the County of Northumberland.

This book provides a fascinating insight into the world of agriculture at a critical point in the history of Britain. It is priced at £7.99, including postage in the UK. It can be ordered from www.wildsofwanney.co.uk or from Wanney Books, 15 Fairfields, Alnwick, NE66 1BT.