Housing sheep to avoid excessive poaching might be an expensive proposition, but when it involves no straw and reduced building costs it can be viable.
An Anglesey farm has found just such a simple way of reducing the sort of poaching that might infringe cross-compliance regulations.
John Foulkes describes much of the 263ha (650 acres) he farms with his wife Eirwen and son Jack as the sort of land where even the rabbits need wellies.
With 3500 Mule-type ewes they decided two years ago that stocking rate had to be reduced in early winter at Marchynys Farm, Penmynydd, but they could not justify the costs involved with erecting a new shed.
“We were also concerned about the risk of respiratory disease hitting ewes housed for an extended period,” Mr Foulkes recalls.
The solution was to erect a block of five 9m x 9m (30ft x 30ft) open-air, mesh floor pens, with some side sheeting to give protection from the prevailing wind.
Mr Foulkes admits they did not quite have the courage of their convictions and used steel uprights tall enough to support a roof if things went wrong.
The pens were built with a 1m (3ft) gap beneath the weldmesh floor panels, which can be lifted for cleaning out dung.
Ewes are confined at the rate of 145 a pen, well within good welfare requirements, but crowded enough to ensure treading forces faeces through the floor, so sheep stay clean.
The first in-lamb ewes are penned from November and fed only good quality silage until concentrate is introduced when they are moved indoors just before lambing.
“Ideally, we would like to turn them out on to clean fresh pasture to lamb, but the ground is just too wet.
If we could get some extra drier land, that is the system we would adopt for some ewes.”
Using the pens for several batches of ewes would reduce poaching and rest some fields, while outdoor lambing should minimise the incidence of diseases associated with housing.
It would also mean buying in less straw.
The roofless pens have worked well for two winters, but some changes would be made if the partners were starting again.
Because ewes have been shown to thrive outside, money could have been saved by not using longer than necessary steel uprights and the concrete required to support them.
Mr Foulkes estimates these saving would cut building costs to less than 20 a ewe.
Two winters have indicated that putting troughs along one 9m side of each pen fails to provide sufficient eating space for the number of sheep.
He says he would not change the number of sheep a sq m, but suggests reducing pen size to 9m x 6m (30ft x 18ft) would give adequate trough space for the reduced number in each pen.
Experience has shown there is sufficient muck storage capacity for two winters under floors closest to the troughs and for four years under the rest.
“Overall, we are pleased with the pens and think we took the right option.
Sheep seem happy and stay clean and healthy.”
Following the successful use of the sheep pens, the partners are now planning to erect a slatted floor shed for 120 finishing cattle, but this time it will have a roof.