THERE will always be Blackface sheep at Townfoot Farm!

Daughter of the house Rachel Raine is adamant about that. “There has always been Blackies here, since my grandda took over the farm in 1968, and there always will be.”

Such is her passion for the Blackie flock – as opposed to her mother Jackie’s flock of Texels – on the family farm in West Woodburn that Rachel has been secretary of the North of England Blackface Sheepbreeders’ Association for the past 18 months.

It’s a labour of love that paid dividends earlier this month when the team at the helm, including the chairman, Birtley farmer Nick Walton, took the trophy for the Best Breed Society Stand at North Sheep.

The society is all about helping ‘the mother of mountain sheep’ put best foot forward, of course.

Father Robert can’t help chipping in at this point: “In our opinion, they are the best of the hill sheep – we prefer Blackface to Swaledale.

“Put that in,” he laughs. “That’ll stir things up.”

The hardy Blackface was built for hilly terrains and they offered up weightier carcases when the lambs were finished, father and daughter agreed, but it had to be acknowledged there were fewer Blackface flocks around than 20 years ago.

Their popularity has dipped somewhat as farmers have had to take their sheep off the hills to make way for the Environmental Stewardship schemes.

And in truth, farmers are having to spread their bets in these uncertain times. As Robert puts it, “the more fingers in different pies the better” at the moment.

Townfoot Farm is a case in point. While the 320-strong flock of Blackies reign supreme, the family also has 65 mule gimmers to put to tup this year, and they are increasing the number of Texels.

Rachel said: “At the moment we have 50 pure Texel ewes with, hopefully, more coming soon.

“Everybody loves Texels – they are so good to work with. They have great temperaments.”

The thing about the Texel cross lambs is that they fatten faster than the Blackies, by a good three months, so they are ready for mart by the end of August.

But on a traditional hill farm, Blackface sheep are hard to beat. “They live high on the hills where not a lot of sheep can survive,” said Rachel. “And they are the real mother of the North of England mule.

“They are quite a good ‘milky’ ewe as well, and the good carcase weight means they are still popular.”

At the many country shows the breed society attends, members received a lot of approaches from often young farmers keen to test the water.

“They’ll either put a Blackface tup on the sheep they’ve already got,” said Rachel. “Or they’ll try a few ewe lambs to see if they would work for them.

“There are more people changing (their livestock), because of the way the economy is at the minute, trying to improve their livelihoods. It’s a real sign of the times.

“My grandda would never have dreamed of having a different breed of sheep, no matter how tough times got – he would never have changed from Blackface sheep.”

Something Rachel herself would like to do differently, though, is get rid of the dozen or so remaining cattle at Townfoot. Or, at least, not replace them.

“They are not financially viable on this farm – this is a sheep farm,” she said. “But also, I just don’t like cows!”

She loves horses, however, to the point she spent three or four years working for horse trainer Mark Tompkins, on the Earl and Countess of Halifax’s estate at Garrowby, in North Yorkshire.

“But believe it or nor, I missed my Blackie sheep so much, I took 10 ewes down there, got a field off one of the local farmers and lambed them down there.

“I just said to Dad ‘bring me 10 ewes’ and he loaded them up on a trailer and brought them down.

“I’m definitely a sheep girl at heart.”