Farming in the College Valley Estates
The farmland in the valley is divided into two separate farms which are tenanted by Bill and Fanny Elliot at Hethpool and Ted and Anne Fox at Elsdonburn.
Bill Elliot at Hethpool
The Elliot family came to the College Valley in 1955 when Bill was a babe in arms. Bill's father Gilbert managed the estagte until he died in 1980 when Bill took over 14 shepherds, 2 fencers and 1 man farming at Wooler. From 1980-1999 Bill managed College Valley for the directors and when in 1999 the decision was made for College Valley Estates Ltd to cease farming the land and to divide it into two holdings Bill took on the tenancy at Hethpool. From 1999 until present day, Bill has been a tenant farmer and looked after his sheep with assistance during busy periods.
On Bill's land there are 1330 hill sheep that are bred for meat and kept as fit and healthy as possible as the healthier they are, the more productive they are. 450 are 'Blackies' or Scottish Blackface ewes with shaggy wool, horns and – yes – black faces, which have historically been here and 880 North Country Cheviots (Bill's favourite), which have a 'tighter' (tidier) fleece, are heavier sheep and are more productive but require a lot more looking after. Every year he keeps the prime sheep as replacements for his breeding flock about 135 Blackies and 240 Cheviots. He sells most of his surplus ewe lambs to breeders in north of England and the Scottish Borders and sells about 35 Cheviot rams or tups to Lockerbie, Lairg and Dingwall and 6 or so Black Faces to Lanark. Bill owns 6 Collie dogs: Jed – 12 year old bitch, Till – Jed's daughter 10, Tweed a 6 year old dog, Kale a 4 year old dog, Trow – 2 year old dog and the baby Glen 8 month old dog – all named after local rivers.
Bill buys pups in at 8 weeks and starts training them around 1 year old, they are fairly well trained by 2 years old, although this can vary depending on the individual. How long they keep working for depends entirely on their health but he always tries to have a range of ages so he always has dogs that can work, in these hills dogs are a vital tool for the job.
The Sheep Farming Year:
End March – Middle May: Lambing where he works all hours of daylight and more. He lambs in fields unless there are any sheep in need of medical attention which he brings inside and has room for 30. The weather can make a huge difference at this time of year, killing lambs with cold and wet or making it difficult for the ewes to produce milk if the grass doesn't grow.
June: Shearing and mark them depending which hill they came off and once the sheep are shorn life becomes much easier, lambs are more mature and can fend for themselves. Sheep all over the Cheviots are marked in different places with different colours so their owners can be identified.
September – End December: Wean or 'spane' lambs and start selling ewes, lambs and rams. Fat lambs go straight to the abattoir and the breeding stock either go direct to other farms or through the market
November: Rams go out. He selects a group of 60 ewes to go to 1 selected Ram.
Winter months are weather dependant and he hadn't had to feed as much recently due to milder winters until the winter 2009 – 2010 when there was snow on Cheviot for nearly six months.
His favourite places in the Valley are The Linns, Hethpool and The Bizzle.
Ted Fox at Elsdonburn:
Ted and his family moved to Elsdonburn in 1999 taking over some of the hefted resident sheep on Cheviot. You will see his sheep both in the Elsdonburn valley and towards the upper end of the main valley and into the Lambden valley.
Towards the head of the main valley you might see some red-brown cattle. These are Luing's which are looked after by Ted. The Luing's are bred for beef and are well known for both their hardiness and ease of handling. It is vital that any cows brought into the valley are capable of walking on the fell sides without causing any erosion.
The picture below says it all about farming the Valley in the winter. These sheep were up above Dunsdale during the heavy snows of February 2009.