Dutch Spotted Sheep win the hearts of the Fosters high in Teesdale

Durham Dales farmer Nicola Foster is sold on Dutch Spotted sheep since establishing a pedigree flock last year and using the rams commercially.

Monday, 2nd August 2021, 10:51 am

With her husband Nigel, Nicola farms the tenanted Birch Bush, Forest-in-Teesdale, just above High Force, which runs up to 1,450ft above sea level.

Birch Bush is in traditional Swaledale sheep country and when the couple succeeded the tenancy of the Raby Estate farm in 2015 from Nicola’s parents, Carl and Dorothy Wearmouth, the Swaledale flock remained the backbone of the farm. The farm runs to 125 acres and the Fosters rent a further 40 acres of good grazing ground near Barnard Castle for the hoggs and white-faced sheep. As well as the flock of 220 Swaledale ewes, they run 80 Texel cross ewes and 20 Limousin and British Blue cross cattle.

The couple would like to farm a bigger acreage and expand. Nigel works on a dairy and sheep farm half an hour away for four days a week while Nicola looks after the farm day to day. “We didn’t have a ram for our white-faced Texel cross flock and we had been looking at the Dutch Spotted sheep – a neighbour has some,” said Nicola, who was brought up with sheep farming.

“We liked the look of them, particularly their conformation. We wanted a breed that was easily managed as I am running the farm on my own a lot of the time and a sheep that was long-lasting. Although we didn’t really plan to, we went for it! We bought four females and a ram at Dutch Spotted Sheep Society sales last year and we imported some females and a tup from Holland – and we fell in love with them.”

Dutch Spotted Sheep are a relatively new breed to the UK, the society being formed in 2016. While records show the breed goes back around two centuries in Holland, selective breeding has produced a sheep with modern characteristics and greater profitability.

The Fosters have established the Outberry pedigree flock numbering 13 registered females – the prefix taken from the name the farm was previously known as – and they are already proving a hit with the couple’s six-year-old son, Thomas. This year, they plan to build on their investment, selling some females not retained as replacements at the society sales in Carlisle in August and December. All 80 of the commercial ewes were put to the Dutch Spotted ram last winter. The ewes have been bred from Scotch Mules and Cheviots crossed with the Texel. The ewes scanned at 186 per cent and lambing started at the end of March.

“The lambs were just popping out. We lost one lamb due to lambing and I assisted the odd one because I was there at the time but they have just got on with the job themselves. The lambs are finer boned and have a narrower head than some terminal sire crosses, which makes for easier lambing, although the lambs weren’t small when they were born. The lambs were very quick to get up and suckle.

“We weighed some a few days ago, which were seven to eight weeks old and they averaged 27kg,” said Nicola. “It’s a win-win with them.”

The pure-bred sheep have proved to be very milky. Several of the imported hoggs produced twins and they have maintained condition, while the lambs are suckling on fairly sparse pasture because of the late spring this year at Birch Bush.

Marketing of lambs usually starts in July from their mothers off grass but the Fosters haven’t decided yet how to sell them this year. Last year’s whiteface lambs were sold store through Darlington auction mart to capitalise on a good trade. The commercial lambs are predominantly black with white markings, which Nicola doesn’t see as a problem when selling through the ring.

“If the lambs have the conformation, which they do, I don’t see why it should make a difference. All our pure Spotted sheep were selected on conformation,” added Nicola.

The sheep imported from Holland were selected from photographs but the Fosters were not disappointed with the conformation. “The sheep do thrive and they have plenty of shape, which is something we want to retain,” said Nicola. “They are very quiet to handle and for pedigree sheep they are not hard work, which is good as I fit in my work on the farm between the school run at either end of the day.

“They are striking to look at and something completely different. They are such characters as well. After we bought the pedigrees, I set up a Facebook page – Outberry Dutch Spotted Sheep – and there has been so much interest. I’m sure the breed is one for the future,” she said.

There has also been great interest in the Dutch Spotted crossbred ewe lambs and Nicola believes the attributes of the breed could meet the need of commercial sheep producers.

The crossbred females have dark udders, which Nicola thinks could help prevent mastitis problems. Mastitis is a real problem at this time of the year with the cold weather, as well as summer problems. The Fosters always keep a proportion of their home-bred ewe lambs as flock replacements and they will do this year but any surplus will be sold. The society has a grading up system from 50 per cent Spotted bloodlines at Grade 4 to 93.75 per cent at Grade 1 and any over 96 per cent is registered pure and Nicola believes many producers will go down this route to establish a pedigree flock.

All the Swaledale flock is bred pure, lambing in April and the ewes graze in the summer on Ettersgill Common. The Fosters have run the white-faced flock since taking on the tenancy, breeding their own replacements using Texel rams.

Last year, all the wether lambs were sold off their mothers at no extra cost, although previously they have been sold deadweight through Dunbia. Swaledale shearling rams are sold at Middleton-in-Teesdale and breeding rams are bought either at Middleton, Kirkby Stephen or Hawes. Swaledale gimmer lambs are sold at home and at Middleton mart with last year’s crop averaging £98.

The Fosters also have five pedigree Limousin registered under the Outberry prefix that are run as part of the 20-strong suckler herd. Nigel carries out AI matching bulls to the breeding of the Limousin and British Blue cross females. Suckled calves are sold at Middleton at six to seven months old.

At the March sale, a heifer was sold for £1,300 as a breeding female, for which there is currently a big demand.