Chris Berry talks with Syd Bainbridge at Marrick Abbey Farm.

Back in the 1990s I took a photograph of a man loading up a trailer in Swaledale. It was just one of those split second moments that you can’t recreate. I simply had my camera in my hand after having just completed an interview and the scene was typically Yorkshire, with rolling hills in the background and a farmer at work on a country lane. I used the photograph as a cover shot on the Farming in Yorkshire magazine that I ran for many years.

One of the favourite competitions among farming families when receiving the magazine through the post was to tell me where in Yorkshire the picture had been taken and on this occasion I’d apparently captured one of Swaledale’s favourite sons – Stan Bainbridge. I was soon to realise just how popular Stan was and how the Bainbridge family name is synonymous with quality sheep breeding.

Sadly Stan passed away in 1999, but the Bainbridge name lives on at Marrick Abbey Farm where the family business of Bainbridge Bros sees three brothers, Stan’s sons Ernest, Syd and Andrew, carrying on the family tradition of sheep farming. The dairy operation that grew under Stan’s tenure was a casualty eight years ago and today a suckler herd has replaced it. The haulage and storage of fleeces forms another arm of today’s farm business at Marrick.

‘We’re predominantly a sheep farm,’ says Syd. ‘We have just over 1000 breeding ewes of which 900 are Swaledales. Of those 200-300 will be put to the Swaledale tup with the rest going to the Blue Faced Leicester to produce Mules for getting away in September and October. We also have around 100 Dalesbred ewes that are largely put straight back to the Dalesbred tup with any that are not good enough put to the Blue Faced Leicester to produce the Dales Mule. We have 12 Blue Faced Leicester ewes to produce tups and 15 Teeswater ewes to keep the breed going. We used to breed Mashams.

‘Lambing starts from the last week in March and runs through for around six weeks. We hold back the Swaledales to give the Mule lambs a bit of a start. Mules are all sold at Hawes and we sell tups at Hawes and Kirkby Stephen.’

The breeding of the Teeswater is very much a matter of tradition and prowess in showing for the Bainbridges who have had breed champion at the Great Yorkshire Show on more than 20 occasions. They have also had male and female champions there with their Swaledales.

‘Ernest and his daughter, Lynsey show the Teeswaters while Andrew, my daughter, Katy and Ernest’s son, Martin show the Swaledales. Dad was big with the Teeswaters and Dalesbreds and showed them everywhere. We’ve always shown sheep. It was our grandfather, Robert who came here from Teesdale at the turn of the 20th century. He bought Marrick Abbey Farm, Reels Head Farm and Woodhouse Farm. He’d had a big family with 11 children. Many around here will have heard of Tarn Bainbridge, one of dad’s brothers along with Robert, William and John who became a cobbler. Mum, Elizabeth and dad just had the three of us.’
Today’s family farming operation sees the brothers with just short of 1000 acres of which moorland makes up 600. The other livestock enterprise is a suckler herd of 80-90 Belgian Blue X Limousins that Syd runs.

‘The majority of what we produce goes through Leyburn Mart as stores and we try to get them away by 11 months. If anything shapes up quicker it can go earlier. We’ve grown the suckler herd since coming out of dairy and we’ve found that producing smart little things that are really muscled up is what the premium end butchers whom we supply really want. Ours are normally bought by butchers in Wakefield and Thirsk.

‘Coming out of dairy cows was an easy decision financially as the milk price had meant we just couldn’t make it pay, but it was difficult letting them go. Granddad had milked a few and dad had expanded the operation. He liked dairy cows and Andrew had been involved with them too. Originally we’d had Northern Dairy Shorthorns but we had moved over to Holsteins many years ago and had 90 at the time we made the decision to finish. When I was very young we’d had a small suckler herd of Aberdeen Angus cows but dad had let those go to concentrate more fully on the dairy herd.’

Hauling and storing fleeces for North of England Wools started in 1999 and the brothers now haul from 750 farms with 230 tonnes of fleeces brought to Marrick Abbey Farm.
‘Some farmers bring in their own and most days someone arrives with another delivery. We pick up off farms, we bale them up and take everything into the British Wool Marketing Board in Bradford.’

Reeth is just two miles away and Reeth Show has played an important part in the lives of the Bainbridge family. Syd tells of how the show was saved by an important move about five years ago.

‘Dad was president of Reeth Show until he passed away. Ernest is on the sheep committee and my wife, Janet was secretary for four years. She’s still on the show committee. I’ve been involved since the early 1980s and have held the roles of chairman and vice chairman. I’m now a vice president, I steward and help with whatever needs doing.

‘Moving the show from a Wednesday to Bank Holiday Monday has given the show a new lease of life. If we hadn’t moved it the show may have died because we were losing money hand over fist. The first year it was held on the Monday our gate money exceeded all expectations and now even if the weather is bad we still do well. It has put us in a really good financial position.’

Syd and Janet have three daughters – Victoria, Katy and Alice who is a trainee veterinary nurse in the village of, wait for it, Bainbridge!
Ernest’s son, Martin works for the Busby family on their farm in Marrick and is also the Bainbridge family sheep shearer as well as clipping for other farms in the area.
Syd’s other passion is motorbikes. He’s a member of Richmond Motor Club and competed scoring British championship points in his earlier days. He now officiates, but still has his 2008 Beta 4-stroke. It appears that competing whether in sheep rings or on a bike is all part of the Bainbridge way.