Welsh farmer Dan Pritchard has turned what many would consider a liability into an asset and he is taking his product to the end user directly. Farmers Guardian finds out more about farming on salt marshes.
Farming on a salt marsh common on the Gower Peninsular is not without its challenges, but Dan Pritchard has turned it into a unique selling point for his home-produced lamb.
The perilous stretch comprises 1,619 hectares (4,000 acres) and is home to seven farmers’ sheep flocks, all knowing their own patch of the landscape.
On walking the marsh, the obstacles of farming the common can immediately be seen. It is almost impossible to walk in a straight line for much more than nine metres (29.5ft).
Adding to the common’s obstacles, it is also littered with bombs remaining from World War Two and the Royal Navy’s bomb disposal team regularly sweeps the marsh looking for explosives.
Because of this, vehicles must stick to tracks, meaning the extensive pasture can only be covered by foot.
With access to this marsh common, father and son Rowland and Dan Pritchard run 1,000 ewes and 250 ewe lambs at Weobley Castle Farm, and their working lives revolve around the tides, as for one week in four, the common is submerged in water.
When water is predicted to reach 7.3m (24ft) in the tide-book, it covers the marsh and one-third of the farm’s field closest to the sea.
Dan says: “If a sheep fell into one of the hundreds of ditches and holes, it probably would not be seen again, most likely being swept out to sea.”
The tides dictate the timing of all major jobs on-farm, as sheep are moved up and down the marsh according to the tides and graze the entire common for one week in four.
Two weeks are spent moving sheep to low areas on the marsh away from the rising tide and the other week they are kept completely off the marsh.
Every New Year, shearers are booked for a week during high tide, when sheep are not grazing the common.
The Pritchard family use the marsh all year, but not all the commoners do.
Mule ewes are kept at Weobley Castle and put to a Suffolk ram, producing Suffolk Mule ewe lambs, which are then put to a Primera ram.
Dan says: “We have been using Primera rams for four years now, as they are easy lambing and fast growing, which are the two main things we look for.”
Most lamb outside in April, but they are taken in at night to save on straw use and protect them from any predators, but 100-150 early lambers go inside to lamb in February.
Offspring from ewe lambs are sold as stores, as Rowland says the young ewes are still growing on the marsh and they do not need a lamb on them as well.
This award will highlight sheep farmers who have successfully adapted their farming system to cope with the pressures of rocketing input prices, flock health challenges and difficult market conditions.
Whether you are altering your production system, changing direction completely or identifying a new market or future, you will be a farmer utilising and maximising the opportunities arising within your business.
To enter or nominate go to www.britishfarmingawards.co.uk
There are no traditional grasses on the marsh, but sheep graze salt herbs. These are high in sodium and iron and inevitably change the taste of lamb reared on the marsh.
Dan says: “Although well-known in France, salt marsh lamb has only been identified as a speciality meat in the UK in recent years.”
It was Rowland who first discovered the concept of salt marsh lamb from the continent.
Dan says: “My dad heard about salt marsh lamb from France and thought we could do that, particularly as lambs in the market were only fetching £15-£20/head.”
About 10 years ago, the family teamed up with a neighbour and started selling lamb under the Gower Salt Marsh Lamb name.
Dan says: “Because of the lambs’ unusual diet, our salt marsh lambs have a different taste. I think it is a stronger taste, but yet not so lamby.”
They formed a not-for-profit co-operative with a neighbour who is a butcher and Dan and his brother Will also took a butchery course, funded by Farming Connect, and butchery facilities have been put in place on-farm.
Sheep are killed in a small abattoir owned by Hugh Phillips in the neighbouring village of Crofty. They are then hung, cut and packed at the coastal farm, and Dan says 15 lambs can be processed each day in their facilities.
The two producers are paid a £5/head premium and lamb is sold mainly direct from the farmhouse, with visitors to nearby Weobley Castle providing a strong passing trade.
They also supply local butchers and restaurants and whole carcases are delivered to butchers as far away as Bristol and Shepton Mallet.
About 70 per cent of the lambs are now sold under the brand, with sales continually rising. This, coupled with constantly improving management and genetics, has ensured the business remains sustainable and profitable even without subsidies.
The co-operative has received an array of awards over the years, and last year Dan won the Sheep Innovator of the Year Award at the British Farming Awards.
From Christmas to June, lamb is sold frozen to ensure year-round supply, with orders delivered by courier.
Also part of the Pasture for Life scheme, lambs are not fed any concentrates, but 8ha (20 acres) of fodder beat are grown each year and 250 grass silage bales made.
Dan believes the salty water helps contribute to the overall good health of the sheep.
He says: “I think the salt is good for their feet and I try and run them through some sea water on their way back to the marsh. I also think this ground is free of worms, but it is when they come off it and onto the grass fields they can get wormy.
“Scab and maggots can be big issues in the flock, so all sheep are dipped every six weeks through summer.
“We like to keep everything as natural as possible, finished off grass and lambing outside.”
The business does not spend much money on advertising, as Dan says they do not see the benefit of doing so, but hope to build their social media presence.
They also appeared on BBC documentary Coast and Dan says when this episode is repeated, their orders the next day rocket.
Looking ahead, Dan who was an NSA Ambassador and part of Farming Connect’s Agri Academy group in 2013, is keen to expand the butchery facilities and share ideas and learn from others from within the industry.
On winning the Sheep Innovator of the Year Award, he says: “I am totally shocked to have won and it means everything. So much goes on behind the scenes in farming and so many people are involved.
“It is a lifestyle, but it is a business, and a way of enjoying what you do. This gives me the confidence I am heading in the right direction.”