Hill farmers get into gear for Euro-lambs
Demand for lightweight Euro-lambs for export has brought a new lease of life to hill sheep farming.
Jeremy Hunt reports
CUMBRIAN hill farmers are adopting a new approach to flock management to meet the demand for lightweight "Euro-lambs" drawn from fell flocks as early as May.
The initial "hit and miss" attitude to supplying mid-summer lightweight lamb has gone. The well-established export trade for lambs, which can range from 19kg-28kg liveweight, is instigating radical reappraisal in terms of breeds and crosses, lambing dates and the way lambs are drawn for market.
Mason Weir runs 1100 ewes at Dowthwaite Head, Dockray, Matterdale, in the heart of the Lake District. Hes typical of the growing number of fell flockmasters who have now changed the way they market their lambs.
Big changes to operations
"Weve come a long way from the days of cashing in a few small lambs in June," says Mr Weir. "Were now selling over 800 lightweight lambs a year, but its meant some big changes in the way we do things."
A major handicap of Lakeland fell farming has been the heavy dependence on autumn store lamb sales. Demand for the lightweight "Euro-lamb" means flocks are generating income four months early.
Dowthwaite Head, situated at 1200ft, runs Herdwick and Swaledale ewes, but to meet the early market for "chunky" lambs Mr Weir has introduced Cheviot tups and for the first time last year ran two Kerry Hill rams.
He "dabbled" with the lightweight market when it started three years ago. Now all lambs from his 600 crossing ewes plus purebred Herdwick and Swaledale wether lambs are sold for the Euro trade.
"This year has been exceptional. We sold the first lambs in May," says Gordon Allan, part-time shepherd at Dowthwaite Head.
"We take everything to Kirkby Stephen auction mart, which now sells the Euro-lambs separately at 4.30pm on Tuesday, just before the prime lambs are offered. These are specialist lambs for a specific trade."
Weight is not critical. Mr Weir sold 19kg Swaledale wether lambs in early June for £25 a head, but the most popular weight range is 24kg-28kg. In June he was expecting at least 105-110p/kg.
"If they are meaty lambs that have done all their growing off the ewe then they are just what the market wants. The skill is making sure that you have the correct amount of cover on them and you sell them at the right time.
"Its vital that these lambs have grown flesh and not frame. If you leave them just a week or so too long theyll lose the cover and start to go leggy. It can be another six weeks before you get them fit to sell again," says Mr Weir.
The weekly draw from late May onwards is reducing grazing pressure for remaining lambs which leads to improved growth and fewer worm problems. Ewes whose lambs have been sold are turned back to the fell though they can be "too fit" by tupping.
"That may be the only downside of the job. We are getting a lot more twins now, over 300 sets this spring."
Lambing has been brought forward about two weeks to mid-March as shearling ewes return from away wintering in "good fettle" and have enough milk to overcome any shortfall of in-bye grazing in early spring.
The first lambs drawn are off the crossed ewes which are "kept handy" on lower grazing and can be easily gathered. Purebred fell ewes are gathered for shearing in late June when the first serious draw of pure Swaledale and Herdwick wethers is made.
Cheviot tups, once used to produce store lambs, are now proving ideal sires of well-fleshed export lambs and are put to both Herdwick and Swaledale ewes. Kerry Hill-sired lambs have been easily lambed and "particularly sharp". They have proved most successful on Cheviot x Herdwick ewes.
Fears of serious mastitis problems due to early weaning have lead some farmers to use only old ewes to produce a lightweight lamb crop and to sell them as culls immediately after lambs have been drawn. But at Dowthwaite Head there have not been any serious difficulties and ewes have been turned back to the fell in June and dried-off with few mastitis cases.
"The Euro-lamb has brought a new lease of life to hill sheep farming. I hope I have seen the last of selling store lambs for £17 apiece in October, when I can now sell them for over £1/kg in June," says Mr Weir. *