When deciding what to produce at Manor Farm, we are lucky as we have an abundance of pasture that gives us plenty of room for manoeuvre. Once upon a time spare grassland in Hampshire was gobbled up by the demand for cereal production, but because some of our fields are old water meadows that are part of a natural drainage system, cultivation was pointless. We decided to stick to a mixed farm system, and nowadays, we’re rather glad we did.
Nature or Nurture?
You need both, but let’s start with the breeding. Ladies first.
A good sheep mother is mostly nature. We can’t do parenting classes, so we have to create one with good hard-wired instincts. We need her to have a reasonably stout physique, produce a fair proportion of twins or triplets, and be a good feeder and protector of her offspring.
We’ve settled on the daughters of Mr Lleyn (pic) (pronounced Clin) and Mrs Romney (pic). These girls get their strength from their edgy fathers who bring their fiery Welsh ancestry into the mix. The Romney family influence provides the mothering skills and fertility. The resultant blend gives us the ideal ewe to then produce our lambs for the table. We breed most of the young mothers at Manor Farm and the girls have an easy life for a year and a half, before their debutant season when they go on to meet a male.
Their suitor is an exotic chap who calls himself a Meatlinc. (pic) He is a blend of 5 different breeds and is a ‘terminal’ sire, whose sole job is to father lambs that have good physiques for meat. He isn’t part of a pedigree breeding programme and never has grandchildren. If he’s your father, it’s, er… terminal.
The usual method of ram purchasing didn’t change at all during the last century. You went to an auction and based your selection on looks, reputation of the vendor, or rumour. So it was particularly interesting when the Meatlinc came along. They are raised on specialist breeding stations until they are mature and you then choose your animal after analysing a set of numbers. You are given data on each ram regarding how fast they grew when they were young, how fat they were at various stages of life and even analysis of their dung so that the worm count can be measured. Worm resistance and the other development features are desirable qualities that the ram is likely to pass on.
So as we now know how the potential father grew, we have greater control over how our lambs will develop. At Manor Farm we usually choose rams that were a bit tardy out of the blocks, the later developers. This will ultimately deliver what we want for an excellent roast dish – slower growing animals. The blending of Meatlinc, Romney and Clin also produces a medium sized lamb that will butcher better.
Growing and Fattening
The lambs are usually born outside in early April and live with their mothers on the water meadows. The lush grass thrives in the moist ground and out-battles most weeds, so we don’t need to use any expensive fertilisers or herbicides, it just does its own thing. Weaning takes place in August and by this stage the lambs are already fairly independent. We leave the lambs in the surroundings that they are used to and move the ewes away to minimise any stress. By this stage the lambs have bonded closely with their siblings and have formed basic friendships with their contemporaries, so they do not miss their mothers as much as you’d expect.
We don’t have to medicate for worms as much as we used to. Selecting the rams for worm resistance has definitely worked and we also graze the lambs on chicory later, which has a natural worm prevention effect. If you’ve ever seen a limping sheep in a field, the chances are that it was foot rot, a fungal infection between the hooves. We believe that susceptibility to this is genetically transmitted, so have stopped breeding from ewes that have had a bad case of it. Again, it appears to be working, and lameness is rare.
By September some of the earlier lambs may be showing signs of maturity, so they are moved onto the chicory, which along with its medicinal properties, provides excellent nutrients for fattening. We wondered about how this would influence the flavour of the meat but perhaps we’re over-analysing a bit.
When rearing lambs at Manor our two big luxuries are space and time; we have plenty of ground to work with and want to supply the butchers in small, steady batches. Every lamb can get ready in its own time and nothing is rushed. In winter they move to arable ground to graze on a special turnip and forage mix which is more than enough to keep them full. The clever ones will not over-indulge at this point, as staying lean ensures that they live on through to the spring to get back on some early grass before their expanding waistline gets the better of them.
We are always looking to see how we could do things better and regularly discuss the end product with our buyers to see if any improvements could be made, but overall, we have a very happy and healthy flock that are having a good life. We will take you on a tour of the farm if you stay in one of our Feather Down tents.