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HomeEditor's Picks‘We started our Valais journey because of our younger boys as hobby’
Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnanehttps://www.thatsfarming.com/
Catherina Cunnane hails from a sixth-generation drystock and specialised pedigree suckler enterprise in Co. Mayo. She currently holds the positions of editor and general manager at That's Farming, having joined the firm during its start-up phase in 2015.
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‘We started our Valais journey because of our younger boys as hobby’

That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with Gerallt Jones (43), Waunfawr, North Wales, of the Snowdonia Valais Blacknose, in this week’s sheep farming segment.

“My family have lived and worked on our traditional hill farm, spanning three generations, for over 90 years.

One of my earlier memories as a very young child was bottle-feeding calves. But what really sticks out in my mind is attending my first livestock auction with my grandfather.

The bustling crowds: the array of sheep, cattle, poultry, and vegetables on sale was incredible, as was the special treat of visiting the neighbouring café for breakfast. The excitement of that day remains as vivid as ever.

My grandfather used to farm store cattle and sheep and was a well-respected sheepdog trainer. When my father took over the farm, his primary focus was and continues to be commercial sheep farming.

I work full-time off-farm at a hydroelectric power station and fit my farming duties in after work, during the weekends and any free time that I have.

Valais Blacknose breeders

I run the Snowdonia flock, with my father, Alfred Jones, who manages the day-to-day running; however, myself, my wife, Kerry, and our youngest sons, Alfie & Luca, manage our Valais Blacknose flock.

We started our Valais journey because of our younger boys and their sheep obsession and as hobby.

They were a little too young at the time to manage the commercial sheep, but the Valais proved to be a great introductory breed due to their placid natures.

Their gentle demeanour enables the boys to safely learn husbandry skills and gives them confidence in showing their animals at agricultural shows.

We purchased our first Valais ram in summer 2017, originally with the intention to cross-breed with our Greyfaced Dartmoors.

Following his arrival, we immediately fell in love and decided to focus on breeding pedigree stock instead.

Following a lot of research, we spent seven months accumulating an inordinate amount of driving miles visiting flocks and cherry-picking ewes from different bloodlines to establish our foundation flock.

Our first lambs were born in 2018, and we have been breeding and competing on the show circuit ever since.

Lambing season

Now we have over 40; we normally start our lambing season in early March through to the middle of April.

The Valais are lambed indoors so that we can keep a closer eye on them. They tend to be easy lambers but being pedigree sheep, we tend to be a little over-cautious and prefer to be on hand should the need for support arise.

We do have a CCTV system in place, which helps tremendously, especially since my wife, and I work full-time and live off-farm.

We find it very useful for night-time checks, but we are not completely reliant on it. If I am unsure of anything, I am up and on my way to the farm, regardless of the time to double-check on things.

We try and lamb before the commercial flock so that we are not taking over my father’s sheds, but we do always tend to end up with a few stragglers who require a bay.

Spring grass is also readily available, and the days are getting warmer, so it is the best time to turn mums and lambs out.

We let nature take its course when it comes to breeding, which means we often lamb sporadically over several weeks.

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Breeding 

Valais Blacknoses are a non-seasonal but very slow maturing breed; therefore, we do not put our ewes in lamb until they are at least 15-18 months (some older) to give them the best chance at lambing.

If any ewes are not tupped or scan empty within the allocated timeframe, we rest them until the following season so that they are all synchronized.

The main reason for this being we do not like to push our stock, and equally, we do not have the capacity to be lambing all-year-round.

Currently, we retain most of our progeny as breeding and show stock. We only lamb a small number per year, so this is a viable option for us now.

In time, we will hopefully be able to offer more animals for sale, that is if I can persuade my wife and children to part with any.

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Valais Blacknose: Prices

Prices start from a few hundred for castrated males (wether), which we sell as pets, and they go upwards from £2,000 for ewe/ram lambs etc. – depending on the overall quality of the animal, bloodlines, grading scores, and show successes.

Prices vary greatly, but as in all breeds, quality stock demand the highest prices. We have held the Valais Blacknose Breed Society overall sale record since 2019, which we set at 11,000gns.

In 2021, we broke our existing record, setting a new one at 14,000gns, achieved by our shear ram, Snowdonia Goliath.

Agricultural shows

We focus on breeding show-quality animals from Swiss bloodlines, which are true to the sheep found in their native homeland.

This means they must meet all aspects of the breed standards, which are very specific. Overall appearance, including markings, need to be correct, as should conformation and wool quality.

The breed standards were set up in Switzerland, and the UK society follows the same principles.

We have exhibited our sheep since 2018 at the breed society’s national show, Royal, county, and local agricultural shows and have been very successful.

Our flock was the first to ever compete at the Royal Welsh show in 2018 in any other breed classes. Since then, we have worked closely with the RWAS to establish dedicated breed classes, which were a big success at the first post-pandemic show in July 2022.

Without a doubt, it is about the people that we have met, the life-long friends we have made, and our children’s passion and enjoyment.

Our journey has been both an educational and exciting one so far. We feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to visit Switzerland on several occasions to meet breeders and spectate at their national shows to further enhance our knowledge.

The flock will naturally slowly grow due to the number of breeding animals we have; however, the focus will remain on quality, not quantity.

As we retain our ewe lambs, we are always looking at different bloodline options, which we introduce by purchasing new rams; the aim in time is to become a closed flock.

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Swiss breeding traditions

As a family, we have a true passion and are highly invested in this breed and in following the Swiss breeding traditions. The breed has brought our family such enjoyment over the past five years and has opened a whole new world of adventures.

This is certainly a lifelong love affair, and we plan to continue enjoying these incredible animals and breed the best we can long into the future.

Our goal has always been to breed champion animals worthy of the Valais Blacknose Society (VBS) Blacknose Beauties National Show Supreme Champion title, which we achieved this year with our aged ewe, Snowdonia Halo, who was also the national female champion.

Our ewe lamb, Snowdonia Jovie, also won female reserve champion at 5-months-old. In 2021, our ram, Snowdonia Goliath, was the national reserve supreme and male champion.

Top show animals

Looking forward, the hope is to continue breeding top show animals and further promote this unique breed.

Earlier this year, I was also invited by the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society to judge the Valais Blacknose section at Balmoral Show, which is another exciting chapter in the journey of our flock.

The last few years have been a whirlwind experience as newcomers to pedigree breeding and showing; it has been a huge learning curve.

We are immensely proud of all our achievements to date and especially those of our boys; their passion and commitment at such young ages are inspiring.”

To share your story, email – [email protected]

See more Sheep Farming Focus articles.

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