SWALEDALES ~ A VITAL PART OF THE FARMS ECONOMY
Mike Keeble meets John and Claire Mason of Embsay, Skipton
I've known John and Shirley Mason for over 25 years since they went into pedigree Limousin cattle. They've now handed over the reins to son John and his wife Claire but they continue to work hard. Shirley, a stalwart of the Limousin Breeders' Club in those early days, still runs a farm recording service.
Swaledale sheep run the hill, producing much sought after Mules, and the Limousin herd prove their sustainability to exposed grazings by turning out quality breeding stock represents all that is good and essential about farming in the precious landscapes of Britain.
This is a 140-hectare farm tied to the Botton Abbey Estate, run by a family who take huge pride in the land, its walls and the breeding stock they provide to other farmers. Bolton Abbey, its environment and its landscape is precious, but it would not be there for the public to enjoy were it not for the farmers who take their livelihoods from it.
In turn, without the Swales on the hill and the Lims on the in-bye, the Masons could not survive. This is not a family farm dependent on DEFRA's main concerns of environmental over agriculture or on diversification before food production, for the Mason's farm is the only way they can breed sheep and cattle that fit the present day requirements of red meat production.
Skipton's agricultural community was devastated in 2001 by FMD. The Masons lost 25 years of cattle breeding but they're back in business with a Limousin herd largely made up of imported French cattle. The herd is now up to over 30 breeding cows plus replacements.
The Swaledales at 900 ewes are a vital part of the farm's economy and at lambing and tupping temporarily take over. They are a breed that is second in population only to the Blackface, renowned each autumn for astronomic top prices constantly heading to the dizzy upper five figure level. The resultant Mule gimmer has an enormous influence on lowland lamb production. John and Claire are conscious of the need to get the selection of ewe replacements prioritised. The Swale is a tough ewe; she'll get out grazing to cover the fell; she's above all an intelligent sheep, prolific if well managed, a good milker and when her genes mingle with the Blue Faced Leicester, a gimmer lamb is produced is probably one of the most easily managed with a record for high lambing percentages and easily finished cross lambs.
The key to any Swale flock is a good supply of BFL tups, and the Masons produce their own by concentrating on high genetic value. They sell a few tups with a flock record of £2,600 - testament to their quality. John and Shirley have two grandchildren living on Oddacres who unlike many Dales children are not being encouraged to get off the land. Annabel (15) is the shepherd and James (12) the cattleman. In their care, Swaledales will still harvest heather keeping nurdus and molinia at bay. Limousin cattle will crop the grass keeping it sweet for the Mules to rise up from. It's a complicated cycle for the urban mind to appreciate.