Tide of opinion turns towards rearing ewes on salt marshes
By Jeremy Hunt
MANAGING sheep on tidal grazings is not without its problems, but a group of Cumbria producers plans to cash in on the eating quality of prime lamb reared on salt marsh.
Harry Wilson runs about 500 Mule ewes on the Holker Estates Wyke Farm, Grange-over-Sands, and is one of four farms turning sheep onto these coastal grazings on the Cartmel peninsular in south-west Cumbria.
Although he has only grazed his sheep on the farms adjacent salt marsh for the last two years, hes quickly become wise to the unpredictability of tides.
"Farming with the tides brings a new discipline to running a sheep flock. The tide timetable never moves off the kitchen table and even though we constantly watch the weather and tides we can still get caught out," he says.
"This spring, ewes were forced to swim to higher ground because the wind direction affected a tide which was not expected to cause any problems."
Despite having to monitor tide levels all year and regularly move the entire flock on and off the marsh, this type of grazing could soon yield premium prices for the lambs it produces.
His ewe flock, put to Texel and Suffolk rams, is run on two areas of marsh extending to 120ha (290 acres). The area of marsh known as Humphrey Head is under a management agreement with English Nature which restricts stocking rate to 2 ewes/ha (0.8/acre).
"Marsh grazings result from gradual deposits of silt which eventually begin to support vegetation. Humphrey Head marsh has been established for about 20 years.
"But another other area which didnt even exist four years ago is still expanding and we have just started grazing it."
Grazing quality steadily improves as Spartina – a reed-like pioneer species – gives way to other species of marsh grasses.
"We can draw March-born lambs straight off the marsh at 40kg in mid-summer, without any additional feeding.
"We normally sell everything through the auction mart, but a new marketing scheme could give us a premium market for these lambs," says Mr Wilson.
A meeting held recently between producers and Holker Estates discussed a marketing initiative for salt-marsh lamb. "We hope that a marketing scheme can give an identity to lamb produced on the salt marsh. It has a distinct quality and texture, is extremely tender and the meat is slightly darker than grass-fed lambs," he says.
• Produce prime lamb.
• Grazing improves with time.
• Need to monitor tides.
Keeping an eye on the tide timetable is essential for producers running flocks on salt marshes, says Harry Wilson.
Marketing drive steps up a gear
CO-ORDINATING marketing of prime lamb produced on salt marshes should give the high value product wider recognition.
Dickon Knight, Holker Estate manager and driving force behind the project, says salt marsh lamb has long been considered the premium sheep meat in France. "We believe our tenants have an equally high value product which deserves wider recognition."
The Holker Estate, owned by the Cavendish family, is situated close to Morecambe Bay. The marsh grazings produce 3500-4000 prime lambs/year.
"About 10% have been recognised as salt-marsh lamb when sold through local butchers shops, but we want to deliver premium prices to producers for a much greater proportion of the annual crop," says Mr Knight.
The salt marsh lamb marketing scheme, which will be launched in mid-summer, will see lambs slaughtered locally and prepared by award-winning Q Guild butchers S and L Higginson at Grange-over-Sands.
Lamb will be sold through butchers shops and to Lake District hotels and restaurants as part of the Holker Speciality Foods initiative.
"We see this as a way of protecting our farmers from the vagaries of the market by capitalising on the unique qualities of the way this lamb is produced.
"The estate will buy lambs from its tenants at a premium price and are proposing a scheme that allows producers to share in the profits generated through lamb sales via Holker Speciality Foods," says Mr Knight. *