WITH DIRECT subsidies a thing of the past, increasing numbers of arable farms are considering replacing crops on marginal land with livestock and more particularly sheep.

But in recent years even dedicated sheep producers in the main livestock areas have had difficulty sourcing experienced, reliable shepherds, so new flocks in arable areas are likely to struggle to find suitable staff.

Shepherd Dan Phipps, of Thetford, Norfolk, believes the answer is contract shepherding, whereby all day-to-day flock management is carried out by a self-employed shepherd.

“The farm owns the sheep, but a contractor carries out all management of the flock, including checking ewes every day, organising grazing, marketing and health treatments.”

While in future Mr Phipps reckons it will be large arable farms using contract shepherding arrangements, at present his largest contract is with the Shadwell Estate Company, which owns several studs in the East Anglia. “Sheep are used to manage the grass to ensure it is kept in good condition for the horses,” he says.

The level of management can vary according to the expertise and availability of farm staff, but with Shadwell Estate Mr Phipps is responsible for all annual management tasks.

This includes preparing ewes for tupping, managing them through the winter and lambing them in spring. “We also ensure ewes are seen every day and any problems are solved as soon as they emerge.

 “The key is having the knowledge to know when sheep aren”t looking right and spot problems early on. Anyone can move electric fences or shift sheep between fields. But without the knowledge to realise why a particular ewe is hanging back in the mob problems may go unnoticed for some time.”

Mr Phipps says on many estates considering running sheep on marginal arable land there may be staff with basic knowledge of sheep and the contract shepherd would only have to see ewes every other day. “That would mean a shepherd could manage flocks on more units, lowering costs.”

The only problem comes when you get a problem which needs attention immediately, this can delay getting to the next flock.

 “It”s difficult to know how many flocks a shepherd could be involved with. On a good day you may be able to visit three or four different units, but at busy times, such as lambing, you may only be able to see one flock,” he says.

While many arable contract agreements work on an acreage fee, Mr Phipps says the current arrangement with Shadwell Estate is paid for on an hourly basis. “Typically a whole-flock contract would be paid for on a ewe basis.

 “But the company has seven properties in a 100-mile radius, each with sheep on it, so this contract involves a lot of travelling and can mean spending much time moving sheep between paddocks.

 “When a flock can be run on a large block of land on the same farm then a management fee for each ewe would probably be more appropriate.” For an hourly rate agreement, he suggests a shepherd would charge between 8 and 10.

The main benefit for the estate is the flexibility and savings it provides, reckons Mr Phipps. “For anyone to employ a full-time shepherd they would need to have more than 1000 ewes and would probably have to provide a house and a vehicle and pay an allowance for dogs.”

 But a self-employed shepherd will provide a vehicle and dogs themselves and will have no need for a house on the farm. “Additionally, the flock owner is not paying someone when they have no need to, particularly in slacker times over winter when there is little to do with the flock.”

In summer, about half of Mr Phipps” time is spent managing the Shadwell flock, with the other half spent on other farms around the area. In winter months, Mr Phipps spends most of his time contract managing about 7000 finishing lambs for another local flock. “This way I get to keep busy all-year round.”

 Ewe type can be important though, he reckons. “Ewes should be reasonably self-sufficient. Then ewes could be seen on a less regular basis meaning a shepherd could manage more flocks.”

jonathan.long@rbi.co.uk