Customer care team colleague Sarah Whitaker is a familiar face at The Cumberland – and also at many of the country shows.
Having been a casual worker for seven years, the Lancastrian now works in The Cumberland’s Kingstown head office fielding enquiries – though she’s just as at home out in the field.
At her smallholding in Newton Arlosh, just north of Wigton, she has 109 Ryeland sheep, a number of which have landed her some major awards.
How long have you been breeding sheep for?
“I used to have Texels with my late father growing up in Lancashire, and I moved up to the farm here 20 years ago.
“We’ve been breeding the Ryelands since 2009, and we have both the white and coloured sheep.”
Are they native to Cumbria?
“They’re originally from Herefordshire, so they aren’t native to this part of the country. They were also a rare breed but they are much more popular these days – there are more than 800 members of our society who breed them.”
“They’re very popular at shows, mainly because they are extremely cute and they look a lot like teddy bears. That’s probably the main reason why they are much more common now and they are all over the country, as well as some in Ireland.”
“I started with two and now we have 109. They are bred mainly to show, though you can sell their wool to crafters for something called felting, or other people like to weave it. Our passion though is visiting the local shows. “
How much work goes into showing sheep?
“There is a lot of preparation that goes into showing sheep that people wouldn’t realise. They are clipped at the start of the year and then washed around three weeks beforehand. Then in the week before, they are all trimmed and you have to keep on top of them. They are incredibly high maintenance sheep.
“They also need training on a halter so that they can be walked around the show ring and they learn to walk with you. It’s a lot like training a dog.”
How difficult has 2020 been for sheep farmers?
“All of our work for the year has pretty much gone to waste – there have been no shows and everything’s been put back to next year. We’re hopeful that they will go ahead then.
“Planning starts around this time of year, and the tups are in with the ewes now – so we will be lambing around January and February. They would typically be ready for the first show of the year which is in Northumberland in May.
“Shows take up pretty much every weekend of the summer until September, and we’ll do all the local ones, such as the Cumberland Show, and also up to Wigtown in Scotland, and the last one is usually Hesket Newmarket.”
What awards have you won in competition?
“There are multiple classes for males and females, and my favourite is the prize for best mum, dad and lamb – seeing the family lined up and receiving an award makes it all worth it. When it’s one of your own that you’ve brought through and someone is impressed enough to put a rosette on them, that’s what makes me the proudest.
“Probably the biggest award we’ve won was for Warhorse, who was reserve champion at the Cumberland Show. My husband has won lots of awards too – there are a few trophies on our table and rosettes around the house.
“Awards aren’t the be all and end all – the shows are just fantastic. They’re great fun, you meet lots of people, learn a lot and discuss ideas with other breeders.”
Does sheep farming take up most of your spare time?
“It’s a 24-hour operation at times, and I never take holidays – I use my days off when it’s lambing time, which takes around a month to do.
“There is a heck of a lot of paperwork involved, documenting all movement of the sheep, any medication they receive, and all our sheep are pedigree so they have something similar to a birth certificate with a family tree of their lineage on.
“Between the sheep and work, the paperwork never stops!”
How do you find balancing working in the office and working in the field?
“I’m doing a whole new job this year, so it’s the first time I’ve really worked in an office. Before that, I was moving from branch to branch covering for people who were off, so I could be in one place for a few days and then move to another.
“That’s obviously not been able to happen this year, so since March I’ve been in the Customer Care team in Carlisle. I thought I knew everything about the job until I started answering the phones – the variety of calls you get is unbelievable.
“It’s been hard work over the last six months, but I’m really enjoying it and there’s a good team around me. As soon as I get home though, the wellies go on and I’m out in the fields.”