10 May 2002

Better hill ewes and scrapie-free flocks essential

By Robert Davies

Wales correspondent

BREED improvement and scrapie genotyping are now essentials rather than optional extras on upland farms, believes a Welsh flockmaster.

Emyr Lewis, who hopes to judge sheep at the Royal Welsh Show, says domestic and export market specifications must be matched, as sheepmeat battles to retain its market share.

While upland flocks still need hardy sheep, which are good foragers and first class mothers, he is convinced the quality of lambs sold must meet changing customer needs. This will eventually mean sheep for export will have to come from scrapie-free flocks.

"Some members of the Welsh Hill Speckled Face Sheep Society started genotyping rams five years ago to get rid of any with high susceptibility," says Mr Lewis, chairman of the 120-member society for 12 years. "Others are now taking advantage of the new scrapie eradication scheme and testing of females will follow.

"We have also performance tested up to 55 ram lambs a year and before foot-and-mouth high index tups were selling for a premium. Breeders know they have to get muscle depth and backfat right to produce a finished lamb the market wants."

On the hook, most purebred lambs he produces at Bacheiddan, Aberhosan, Powys, classify R and O for conformation and 2 and 3L for fat cover. When a Suffolk tup is put on the oldest ewes at least half the lambs are Us.

"Our ewes are bigger than the Welsh Mountain, with mature ewes weighing about 40kg, but it is just as hardy. It suits the farm, on which we used grants available in the 1970s and 1980s to clear bracken and scrub, then we reseeded large areas. This has allowed us to breed bigger ewes which produce many more twins."

This year, the 1150 ewes in Mr Lewiss mid-March lambing flock produced 800 sets of twins. For some years, some ewes were put to Bluefaced Leicester rams to breed Welsh Mules. But the 320ha (790-acre) farm is exposed and halfbred lambs proved vulnerable in bad weather.

"Improving grazing and being prepared to invest in good rams has let us improve our Speckles. But we cannot afford to stand still, which was why we spent £3500 – about £2000 more than the average good ram price – on a high index tup two years ago."

Mr Lewis, who farms with his wife, Angharad, and son Aneurin, feels hill sheep producers are under rewarded for their investment of time and money. The family bought the farm, 1000 ewes and 20 cows for £40,000 in 1970. The alternative was to spend £13,000 on a hotel in nearby Aberystwyth to exploit Mrs Lewiss catering college training.

"It is impossible to say whether we would have been better off today if we had put the same amount of effort into that business. But I think we probably would. We would certainly be more appreciated by politicians."

As hoteliers, they would not have to worry about government reluctance to tackle the rise in badger numbers which might bring TB to the 60-cow suckler herd, he says. &#42

Sheep for export will have to come from scrapie-free flocks as well as having the correct muscle depth and backfat, says Emyr Lewis.

&#8226 Aiming for scrapie-free status.

&#8226 Breeding bigger ewes.

&#8226 High index rams used.