As new entrant farmers, we’ve been on a steep learning curve over the past two and a half years. For all the reading you can do on the most forward thinking ways of managing livestock, it’s practical experience that forces you to learn how to actually look after an animal. We by no means know it all but we’ve now grown the sheep flock to a scale we will be able to see if some of the bigger ideas we’re exploring here are having an impact. We brought in the cows last autumn as part of this wider concept. Our primary aim in raising sheep is to produce the tastiest, healthiest, most sustainable meat.
We have just about finished lambing, definitely the highlight of the sheep farming calendar. Lambing is a reflection of the whole previous year’s management. We believe that sheep farming sustainability is centered around a low input, grass based feed system; in terms of environmentally positive land management and a healthy meat end product. Managing the condition of the grass, and so the ewe body condition, throughout the year is key to raising sheep on a grass based system. This spring we experimented with a few approaches to lambing.
We set one group to lamb in February, which we housed; and one group we lambed through April, outside. Our sheep are badger face sheep (of the torddu variety) which is a heritage breed traditional to the welsh mountains. As a breed they are hardy, good mothers and easy lambers. This means they don’t need much help during birth, then stay close to the lamb, encourage them to suckle and both lamb and mother can cope with harsh weather conditions. As such, they are suitable for a low intervention outside system.
Theoretically, lambing outside reduces the risk of infections associated with housing livestock. Lambing earlier allows the ewe’s lactation to peak with peak grass growth in April/May. Housing protects the young lamb from harsh weather. Plus allows grass in the field to be preserved over winter, when it isn’t growing significantly, so that having some residual grass left allows growth to begin earlier in the year. Longer grass in the fields over winter improves water infiltration and protects soils - environmental benefits. It’s too early to really tell the success or failure of our experiments. We had a very successful lambing period with a 93% survival rate. But lambing is just a snapshot of the year, we need to keep them alive and keep them growing until they reach the point of slaughter.
The badger face breed is traditionally a mutton breed. (Grass fed) Mutton is one of the healthiest meats available, in terms of omega 3 to 6 ratios in the fats. It has a much deeper and more complex flavour than lamb. We are trying to achieve a system which allows us to do this in a financially coherent way. The sheep industry is currently focussed on producing the biggest lamb as fast as possible which is why breeds such as the badger face are overlooked commercially. To achieve this they have to put pressure on the land maximise output and ignore consideration of flavour or health. This mentality is the fundamental systemic failure which undermines the sustainability of farming and limits the diversity of flavours we get to experience.