Improving the genetics of sheep | South East Farmer

Improving the genetics of sheep

Features Posted 08/11/21
Nigel Akehurst meets Stuart Fletcher of Fletcher's Flock to find out what it takes to be a first-generation sheep farmer in the High Weald.

I met Stuart Fletcher and his son Fred at The Deer Park Café in Eridge, a short journey from one of his small flocks (or families as he calls them) of 50 Lleyn ewes and one of his Signet-recorded Lleyn rams.

Stuart is passionate about regenerative farming and improving the genetics of his sheep, spending much of his time performance recording his two flocks: 450 Lleyn ewes and 20 pedigree Texels.

He works with a network of landowners in the High Weald, including Eridge Park, using his sheep to facilitate mid-tier and high-level Countryside Stewardship (CS) agreements. In return, he gets mainly rent-free grazing on short term licences; he does farm one block of land on a Farm Business Tenancy agreement.

With little Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) or environment payments, Stuart’s business model relies on making enough money from selling sheep.

A former naval architect, Stuart spent ten years performing statistical analyses on ship structures before doing the same with sheep when he quit his job to become a farmer at the end of 2012. His aim is to develop a breed of super sheep that produces a high value carcass from low quality pasture with zero inputs.

“That’s why we went for the Lleyn; they had the hardiness and tended to do well off poor grass, but they also had a decent carcass,” he said.

Direct sales are another key part of his business, linking the consumer directly with the produce. Last year he sold over 300 lamb boxes to customers. He hopes to expand this in the future by adding beef and poultry, but is hesitant without an investment in infrastructure.

Factfile

Farm facts

  • First-generation farmer – after 10 years as a naval architect in London
  • Farms around 300 acres
  • Most land on temporary grazing licences, also has new FBT and new share farming agreement
  • 450 breeding Lleyn ewes. Two flocks – one organic and one conventional with plans to double this in next five years. Lambed outdoors in late April.
  • Flock of 20 pedigree Texels and produces own rams.
  • Performance recording with Signet and TexelPlus
  • Involved in PRLB group and AHDB Progressive Sheep Group
  • Integrating livestock into arable partnership with local regenerative arable farmer
  • Sells 50% of lambs through box scheme and to restaurants and 50% through livestock markets (Ashford and Colchester)
  • Passionate about educating farmers regarding regenerative methods and the public about where their food comes from.
  • Started a small beef enterprise buying weaned dairy calves to produce beef boxes
  • Also bought pigs and plans to do pastured poultry behind mob grazed sheep and cattle
  • Featuring in an upcoming BBC TV series scheduled to air in the spring.

Getting into sheep

Stuart grew up in a town and had no connection to farming whatsoever. He says he always enjoyed being outdoors, spending much of his childhood towing a golf trolley around after his parents.

After university he went into naval architecture at Lloyd’s Register. “I used to design structural repairs to oil rigs and aircraft carriers and lots of interesting stuff. It was a good job, with nice people, but I’d spend months and months designing one bracket or girder. Sitting behind a desk I felt a bit like a duck out of water,” he said. “The highlight of the day was a lunchtime run along the Thames.”

On his commute to London, he’d stare out of the window at the pasture and woodland of the High Weald. He decided he wanted to try buying more locally produced meat and went to his local butcher to buy lamb.

He asked where their lamb came from. The butcher replied “it’s all local” but then a van from Smithfield market would turn up outside, he said.

Then he got talking to some locals in the pub, who gave him the details of a local farmer. He went to buy a box from him and was surprised to discover the farmer wasn’t interested, explaining it was too much ‘aggro’.

Undeterred, he bought four live lambs from the farmer and found a small paddock to graze, saving the owner the job of mowing with a garden tractor.

To learn more about how to look after them, he took a couple of sheep husbandry courses run by the Small Farm Training Group. He found he enjoyed looking after the lambs and decided to have a go at breeding from three of them (and wisely ate the one with bad feet).

He went back to the farmer and borrowed a ram and took the sheep back to the farm for lambing, working with the farmer for a couple of weeks to gain more experience. He bought another 30 and returned the following year. The farmer then offered Stuart a couple of rented parcels of land he was giving up, so he bought a few more.

By the end of 2012 he had 150 sheep and used to receive the odd sheep-related phone call during office hours in London. His work colleagues thought he was barking mad. So did the local farmers he met, which surprised him as he thought they should be flattered that he wanted to be like them. When it was announced that his office was relocating to Southampton, he took a redundancy package to focus on his fledgling sheep enterprise.

“I’d been there for 10 years. I finished on Christmas Eve 2012. That same day I went and got my first sheep dog puppy.”

Low input high output

Stuart says he’s made every mistake in the book, having started out with zero knowledge and no family farmers to ring for advice.

He bought continental rams to get a decent carcass lamb, but, unable to supplementary feed (due to the environmental schemes), he struggled to keep them alive on his poor grass. He turned to a farmer who bred grass-fed pedigree Texels and started buying his rams.

When the farmer retired, Stuart purchased his small flock and brought them back to his farm. After being on Italian rye grass, their productivity soon declined on his permanent pasture, he said.

“They are all performance-recorded stock and a lot of them are in the top 1% for EBVs – very high index – but you look at them on the ground and we still have a long way to go. Genetically they are phenomenal, but it’s going to take a few more years to get consistently exceptional performance,” he said. Getting the genetics right is a long-term project, he explained. Everything is tagged at birth and weighed monthly using a mobile handling system and Farm IT software.

The handling system was bought with the help of a small farm productivity grant, though he said he’s working on a design of his own: “There’s no one trailer that does everything. I want a race where we can drive out in the field, put the back down, run them through and weigh them in as much time as it takes them to walk past, and also use it for shearing and taking a quad around to do electric fencing.”

He finds it can be tedious spending hours setting up a mobile race and understands why many farmers don’t do performance recording. For Stuart it’s an essential part of his business model.

“The sheep are my only asset in the business, my pension. And only the very best of them are profitable in this type of zero-input system. We can’t afford any passengers so it’s vital that we collect and use data to understand what’s going on and select the most productive replacements to drive a profitable system.

“It’s fine if you’re chucking two kilos of creep per day at them, but if they have to handle living out there, they need to thrive on poor forage, and the only way of knowing that is by collecting data,” he said. The same can be said for physical characteristics; any ewe that limps goes into a mutton box, as does anything causing a headache at lambing time.

He had just spent three days sorting his ewes into single sire mating groups, with around 50 ewes in each family, which is the most he’ll put a ram lamb to. The rams will then be in for 21 days. I ask what his lambing percentages were like?

“Last year the adults were 155%, with no triplets and 1% barren. Not where we want them,” he replied, “but I’m confident they’re heading in the right direction.” His aim is to get to 180% with minimal triplets.

He added that they have done a lot of work on mineral analysis over the past year and found problems with trace element deficiencies and toxicities that affected getting weight on the ewes after weaning. “Since correcting these problems, the ewes have gone to the rams in great condition this year, so I’ll be excited to see this year’s scanning results.

“The long-term goal is a sheep that will rear a single lamb at a year old and then have five sets of twins. Longevity is very important to us and is quite an underrated trait. Ultimately, I want them to finish all their lambs by weaning at 14 to 16 weeks. It’s a tall ask but some of the ewes are not far off. The trouble is that while we’re expanding the flock we can’t apply as much selection pressure as we’d like because we need to keep the female lambs to get the numbers up.”

He keeps most of the ewe lambs and all go to the ram in their first autumn. Anything that isn’t in lamb at ten months old goes into hogget boxes the following spring or is sold as breeding shearlings off the farm.

“We make a lot of genetic progress from using ram lambs to speed up generational turnover but have also bought some high index shearlings this year from Peregrine Aubrey to add a bit of diversity. It takes a huge amount of staring at a computer screen looking at the statistics, which I quite like in moderation,” he added.

Performance Recorded Lleyn Breeders Group

I ask about worming: “Friday afternoon is microscope day. I’ve bought my own gear – I do my own faecal egg counts, although don’t seem to find many!”

He is part of the Performance Recorded Lleyn Breeders group. “There are about 20 of us in the country who take a similar approach to breeding, and we’re committed to selecting for worm resistance – an initiative with Harper Adams and Signet,” he said.

“The replacement lambs have been blood tested and analysed for antibodies, IgA. The idea is to breed a sheep that is more naturally resistant to gut worms so that we will be less reliant on worming when anthelmintic resistance becomes even more of a problem. We’re in the early stages but we’re making progress; so far this year we’ve wormed our ewe lambs only once, despite the wet summer.

“The downside of the testing is you have to let the worm burden build up so their immune system can kick in, which can be a worry as you don’t want them to start dying,” he said. “Production slows a little as the burden increases, but I think it is worth it.

“The New Zealand way is to chuck a load of sheep on a mountain and see what comes back alive. You can’t really do that here with all the public scrutiny,” he added.

Integrating livestock into the arable rotation

Stuart is also working in partnership with a local zero-till regenerative arable farmer.

“Right behind the combine, he’s there with his direct drill, putting cover crops into the stubble, making the most of any soil moisture. Once they’ve grown, we use the sheep to mob graze around the cover crops.

“He gets muck and enough rent to cover the cost of the seed and I get clean grazing for the ewe lambs over winter. It’s a win-win situation. By grazing the cover crops we expose the ground to the wind and sun so the black grass can emerge and be sprayed off before the spring drilling.”

All his ewe lambs go there for the winter, he explained: “If you’ve got an eight month-old lamb that’s been tupped, they need a kind winter.”

He has also presented on the topic for the Agriculture and Horticultural Development Board, speaking to other farmers at a few agronomy conferences.

With the arable sector becoming less reliant on chemicals and fertilisers, he sees a big role for more livestock. “There are synergies you can’t separate. This year we are going to try grazing some oil seed rape to get rid of the cabbage stem flea beetle – which I think is relatively innovative,” he said.

Shearing

Stuart shears all his own sheep and says he only recently got the hang of it.

“I had ten years of pain and a hatred of shearing, but being bloody-minded, I stuck with it. My sheep were dotted around in so many places it wasn’t economical to get a contractor in. But something clicked over the last summer and now I’ve got the bug.

“It’s strange – you can’t wait to finish, counting down the sheep, but the minute you finish you can’t wait to go again! I’ve got significantly quicker and am hoping to get some work on a shearing round next year. It’ll get me away from the farm and allow me to socialise with other people.”

He now shears his ewes twice a year, in the spring and autumn: “I find autumn shearing a great benefit to the ewes from a welfare point of view. They don’t get tangled up in brambles and are less likely to get cast pre-lambing, and dry quicker after rain.” All the ewe lambs are shorn too, which he thinks benefits them on the cover crops by stopping them picking up much soil in their fleeces.

Last July he posted on his Facebook page about the dire price of wool; how his fleeces were worth less than the cost of diesel to drive them to the Wool Board’s depot in Ashford, and how he’d decided to compost them on a neighbouring arable farm.

The post was shared over 25,000 times and reached more than two million people. He’s now got about 2,000 followers “he’s neglecting” and would like to do more public engagement but finds social media hard work.

“I’m not a natural salesman; there’s a reason I wanted to be alone in a field rather than in London. And the anti-meat agenda is getting depressing: there are so many ‘experts’ out there with no clue about farming, despite being the first to give their opinion. Including our policy makers.

“Most people now know less about the food they eat and how it is produced than how their iPhone works. I should know, I was one of them 10 years ago. I feel we must do more to engage with the public and promote this amazing grass-fed product which we’re being vilified for. I’m convinced that ruminants are the solution to our climate, biodiversity and health problems.”

Direct sales and working with a celebrity chef

Last year he sold over 300 boxes of lamb direct, around 50% of his crop.

“We sell loads in the village. We stand outside a mate’s fish shed in the middle of Ticehurst on Saturday mornings selling individual cuts. People tend to buy half a leg or some chops and then come back and order a box if they like it,” he said.

They also sell boxes by mail order and supply whole carcasses to restaurants in London. One of his customers is the celebrity chef Marcus Wareing. A few years ago he invited him to his Michelin starred restaurant to try his lamb, which had been slow cooked in a water bath for 36 hours and finished on high heat in the oven for 15 minutes. “It tasted sensational,” he said.

More recently the celebrity chef has bought some land where Stuart has a tenancy and they have worked together on an upcoming BBC2 series called Marcus Wareing’s Tales From a Kitchen Garden, scheduled to air in the spring.

Future direction of farming

I ask Stuart what he thinks about the direction of farming? “I’m very positive, but I do find things disconcerting at this moment in time. When I started farming 10 years ago, I said to myself that I was going to take no interest whatsoever in political policies and subsidy schemes and the like, but everything is so inextricably linked it’s hard not to.

“We should feel like we’re in a fantastic position, but I’m struggling to believe a word we’re told by our politicians. They are as detached from the land as the general public, yet are doing trade deals and implementing policies that have a direct impact on our industry, seemingly with no plan. It’s like they are palming our problems off on other countries for the popular vote. We stop farming and producing any methane over here, yet we can ship it from the other side of the world.

“In the High Weald there isn’t much you can do other than animal agriculture or coppicing. It’s no good for arable land as it’s too heavy and it isn’t very fertile.”

The future is very uncertain, he added, but with plenty of opportunities for risk-takers.

“Most of what we have is rent free as we’re facilitating landowners’ stewardship schemes, but with the BPS going we’re not sure what will happen.

“Presumably there is going to be more land available as a lot of businesses won’t be profitable. I can see more of a necessity to have environmental grazing, but you’ve got to have the animals that can handle it, so in that sense I hope our hard work will pay off.”

Family farming and future plans

Stuart clearly loves what he does and so do his four children.

“Being around farming instills an amazing mentality for kids growing up. You can see the things they do compared to their friends who are all on X-Boxes or phones, or can’t go for a family walk without whinging that its muddy. It’s such a can-do attitude that farming instills in you,” he said. “They learn from a young age that there is no knocking off at 5pm if there are still jobs to do. I love every minute of it.”

At the time of our meeting, Stuart was on the cusp of signing a large share farming agreement but wasn’t able to say much more. He hopes this will enable him to double the number of sheep over the next five years, which will mean his wife Vicky can leave her job and join him on the farm. He added: “we are almost at the stage where we need to make a big investment and get set up butchering, or not expand at all. It’s quite a tricky situation.”

In the meantime, he has started to diversify into cattle and pigs and plans to do pastured poultry. It’s hard to believe that a little over 10 years ago Stuart was working in an office and had zero farming knowledge.


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