Much has happened in the life of Derek Steen over the last decade. He has "migrated" from Northern Ireland to mainland Britain, acquired four farms, a topping Jack Russell called Tag, sold a tup to equal the Lleyn breed record price, but best of all, (Tag agrees), he also won the hand of the lady now known as Mrs Cindy Steen.
One constant in his life since the late 1980's has been his flock of pedigree Lleyn sheep. Derek, Cindy and Tag are based at 800 acre Whitcastle Farm, 1,000 feet up in the Dumfriesshire hills, a few miles east from Lockerbie. From here, with the help of just two shepherds, they run a total of 2150 acres made up of one English and three Scottish units. All the land is classified Less Favoured Area. The farms carry a total of 2,000 ewes, with the large majority being Lleyns. In addition there are just over 300 beef cows, with the nucleus being Beef Shorthorns, with some crossed with Salers. Terminal sires are Charolais. Barley for home-consumption, (grain and straw) is grown on 50 acres.
When Derek decided in 1995, to leave Ballyclare in Co Antrim, his first farm purchase was Catcleugh Farm, just south of the Carter Bar in Northumberland. Westerhouses at Bonchester Bridge near Hawick followed. In 2002, post Foot and Mouth, Whitcastle near Lockerbie in Dumfriesshire, was rented from Castlemilk Estates. Finally, in 2004, Hazelbank at Boreland, again Dumfriesshire, was purchased.
The first stock onto Catcleugh were a group of pedigree Lleyn youngsters which had travelled from Ulster . These sheep were descendants of the 20 Ballylinney foundation females which had been sourced from John Geldard (Flock 621), near Kendal in Cumbria and the Cowburn's (Flock 498), of Ormskirk, Lancashire
Lleyn EwesThese females were later supplemented with some classy ewe lambs purchased at Gaerwen in 1996, and in Year 2000, two pens of ewe lambs from the sale of the late Noel Baseley, (Flock 730) of Radcliffe-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire. Since then the flock has been closed to females, consequently the current flock is almost totally home-bred.
Now resident at Westerhouses Farm at Bonchester Bridge , this flock, which numbers 500 ewes and 422 hoggs, (all either R1 or R2 Genotype), is regarded by the Steens as their main pedigree enterprise. Cindy has a "development" flock at Hazelbank Farm. Derek's decision to move this flock from Catcleugh to Bonchester Bridge yielded a bonus - in 1998 a local damsel called Cindy, helped at clipping and marking time. "Cindy saw the quality of my sheep and decided I was irresistible!" said Derek. The couple married two years later.
In a pedigree livestock enterprise, the first sire used can either make or break (spirit, if not bank) the venture. Derek's first tup was a maker, not a breaker. When he bought some foundation females from the Cowburns (Flock 498), Derek also liked the look of one of their tups - H11. Not only did H11 sire quality progeny, for Derek to build upon for his Ballylinney flock, but sheep carrying H11's blood have been used to found other successful pedigree enterprises. One of his grand sons was sold to Robert Lee (Flock 1160) of Lumbylaw, Alnwick, Northumberland. And Debbie McGowan of Alyth, Perthshire, (before she married Neil McGowan), founded her flock (Flock 894) with daughters of H11.
From the outset, Derek has been firmly focussed on the type of sheep he wants to breed - "I'm aiming to breed sheep with maternal qualities, sheep which will produce and rear plenty of good shaped lambs with minimal shepherding. When buying a breeding tup, I look for strong maternal characteristics in his bloodline history. Visually I consider skin, conformation and correctness before breed characteristics. I appreciate that some pedigree breeders believe breed points are the most important consideration, but this breed has to survive and thrive in challenging commercial conditions, not a show ring!"
Lleyn EwesA member of the Lleyn Society Breed Improvement Committee, Derek knows that his firm views that Breed Improvement equals Conformation Improvement, do not meet with universal approval! "Some breeders maintain that better conformation detracts from maternal characteristics. Cindy and I however, aim to breed sheep which have a blend of both - maternal characteristics and conformation. Both are needed these days, now the financial safety net of subsidies is gone".
With production-linked farming subsidies a fading memory for British livestock producers, the commercial viability of any sheep breed is determined by the simple calculation of whether or not it provides an income which exceeds cost of production.
New Zealand sheep farmers did these sums over 20 years ago and management techniques developed on the other side of the world provide valuable guidance for UK sheep farmers keen to keep their Bank Manager happy in the future.
New Zealand breeding stock are selected on the criteria of easy lambing, fecundity, mothering ability, weaning weight, productivity and progeny which fulfil market specifications. Latterly qualities such as natural resistance to costly problems like parasites and/or footrot, are also considered. Under-pinning the New Zealand concept are the basic requirements of minimal labour-input, with high production. Many of their sheep enterprises are flocks of several thousand ewes, shepherded by just one person. "This flock has consistently reared over 200%", explained Derek. "In reality this is just too many lambs, so we're hoping that the tupping delay will mean a lower percentage, which will help save on labour and feed costs. Another bonus is that we'll be able to lamb the ewes outside, cheaper and healthier than housing".
Lambing time is busy enough, yet it is at lambing time the next generation of breeding females are initially assessed. "Only twin ewe lambs which are born without assistance and are quickly up and sucking, get past the first hurdle. Sheep farmers need easy-lambing and vigour more than ever - as economic break-even flock numbers increase, the individual maternity ward treatment many lambing ewes currently receive, will not be possible", explained Derek.
Derek's consistent policy of seeking to improve the maternal qualities of his Lleyns with every generation, has earned an enviable trade for his Lleyn females, with many of them purchased as foundation animals for new or recently established flocks. The "type" established in the Ballylinney females is greatly influenced by blood from one of the oldest flocks in the Society - Flock 50, the "Bronallt" flock belonging to Wynne Davies of Pwllheli, Gwynedd.
In 1993, Derek paid one of the Gaerwen top prices, 950 gns, for L200, bred in the Bronallt flock. Delighted with the progeny of this tup, Derek returned to Gaerwen to buy a paternal half brother - M126, for 760 gns. The sire of these two sheep - a home-bred Bronallt tup, J118. "These two tups really set the type of standard I was looking for with my females", explained Derek. When you find a bloodline which breeds the qualities you seek into your flock, it is a great find and difficult to ignore when you go tup hunting the next time.
The 1998 tup hunting season took Derek Steen to Ross-on-Wye, where the 1997 Royal Show Champion, P200, ("The Prof") was entered by Susan Peters of the Notchcut flock (309), at Bewdley, Worcestershire. The auctioneer's hammer fell at 2,200 gns to a joint bid from Derek and Dennis and Ann Ison of the Denoak flock (381) at Lockerbie. So had Derek forsaken the Bronallt blood which had left such good results in his flock? Not likely! "The Prof" was another paternal half brother to the two previous Bronallt tups. He too was sired by J118.
In a few years the Ballylinney flock had a large number of females sired by the three sons of J118. Derek's next step was to find the right type of tups, with conformation, to take his flock forward. In 2002 Charles Hamilton of Yorkshire (Flock 172), held an on-farm sale. Derek bought two tups, including a son of T184. He must have had his crystal ball with him, for at Carlisle in 2003, another son of T184, bred by John Morton of Penrith Cumbria (737), set a new Lleyn breed record of 9,000 gns. Bad tup buying is easy. Good tup buying is an art, or is it luck? Whatever it is, when you have a good tup, it's important that you hang onto him. Derek has learnt this!!!!
In Year 2000, Flock 730, belonging to the late Noel Baseley of Nottinghamshire, was dispersed. Derek bought a ram lamb, X313. The following year, 2001, the year British livestock farmers were under the cosh of Foot and Mouth, Derek's neighbours were short of a Lleyn tup. With most British livestock at a standstill, Derek sold them X313, (by now a shearling), to help them out. In 2002, having realised that the Noel Baseley-bred X313 had left some cracking lambs in his own flock, Derek tried to buy him back. The neighbour's response - basically negative!!!!
History does not recount what Derek said, but in 2003, the neighbours emigrated to New Zealand , holding the customary farm sale before they departed. Derek swooped, paid £500 for a three year old tup, (x313), and knew he had the bargain of the day. This tale has an extremely happy ending - two years later, at Carlisle , two shearling sons of X313 sold for 9,000 gns and 7,000 gns. The 9,000 gns sheep which equalled the breed record set in 2003, was bought jointly by John Page of Edenhall, Penrith , Cumbria and R. Wilson of Berrier, Penrith. The 7,000 gns sheep went to one of the most northerly flocks in Britain - to Michael Cursiter of Orkney. A couple of weeks earlier, at Ruthin, the Steens had been buyers not sellers, setting a new centre record of 8,200 gns for a shearling, D287, from Emrys and Dylan Jones of the Lluest flock (599) at Machynlleth, Powys. "The background of this tup, plus his conformation, stretch and style, made him the tup for us", explained Derek. "His dam is by a Charles Hamilton (Flock 172) tup, which is consistently breeding well for Emrys and Dylan Jones. Some of his daughters set a new centre record of £370 at Ruthin the same day as we bought the tup".
The Steen Lleyn enterprise, run over three separate farms, has three distinct, but integrating levels - totally pedigree, some pedigree and commercial, with the third enterprise - totally commercial. The full commercial enterprise is at Whitcastle, Derek and Cindy's home. When they took over the tenancy in 2002, this was an empty and un-grazed farm - its stock had been slain the previous year, thanks to Foot and Mouth. A flock of Lairg-type Cheviots was brought from Derek's first mainland farm, Catcleugh, to re-stock the land. The steading sits at 1,000 feet and the farm offers spectacular views. Great on a sunny, summer day, but the winters are long and wet, with 55 inches of rain falling. "The farm can only support a maximum of around 150% lambing", explained Derek, "and while the Cheviots scan at the 165% range and rear close to 150%, we felt that by crossing them with Lleyn tups, we could breed a ewe which would require less flushing (sometimes limited!) and require less help at lambing. "The Lleyn cross Cheviot females are far better mothers and have no bother in rearing 1.5 lambs without flushing. In 2005 we lambed Lleyn cross gimmers outside in hellish weather, but we hardly touched them - they just spat out their lambs, coped really well and looked after their lambs and themselves, despite the atrocious weather".
The remaining Cheviots which came across from Catcleugh in 2002 are still romanced by Lleyn tups, producing first cross Lleyn female replacements. As to the future sheep policy at Whitcastle, Derek outlined his plans - "The Lleyn crosses which prove themselves to be the best and most productive mothers, will be crossed back to the Lleyn to produce ¾ Lleyn replacements, which will give us more lambs. By following that breeding policy we anticipate being able to keep less ewes on the farm, without any sacrifice in lamb output". The new subsidy-free era British sheep farmers are entering, will concentrate minds on keeping costs down, while hoping to earn increased returns. Management options can be limited by where, and what type of land you farm. Breed options are plentiful in a land which seems to have a regional breed around every corner, plus of course the wealth of Continental invaders.
It is safe to assume that Derek Steen has considered all the options - for him, an Ulsterman, farming Less Favoured Area farms in Scotland and England , the answer to the sheep farming challenges of today and the future, hails from Wales - the Lleyn!