Upland farmers are being encouraged to consider mutton production in an attempt to develop flock potential and increase profits.
The mutton renaissance programme was launched in 2004, with the aim of providing further opportunities for British sheep farmers by reintroducing the meat back onto the nation’s plates.
At a recent industry discussion held at Westmorland Service Station, Tebay, John Dunning of the Westmorland family business suggested how farmers need to be developing innovative enterprises to ensure margins stay with primary producers.
Mr Dunning said: “Recent industry changes have ensured consumers are placing a new value on the authenticity of products. They are demanding a transparency with regards to the life and death of the animal, which is opening up opportunities for British farmers to diversify.”
Rhidian Jones, of R.J. Livestock, discussed how hill farmers situated in the Lake District and surrounding areas could make commercial use of mutton, by utilising the access to tourist, hotel and restaurant trade.
Mr Jones said: “Hill breeds are suited to mutton production as they are natural grazers and make use of poorer quality forage, which means they do not store unwanted fat gained from hard feed. A sheep intended for mutton production needs to be a minimum of two-years-old, but aside from this there are lots of ways farmers can make the most of various stock.
“As a barren gimmer will be almost two-years-old, well-conditioned and have no breeding history, they are a good choice for mutton production. Furthermore, culling those without breeding potential can improve overall flock performance. Instead of taking the sheep to market as a cull ewe, the farmer must analyse prices and decide if it is financially beneficial to sell to a local retailer instead," Mr Jones added.
“Keeping wethers on hill farms is another option. The breed must be suited to the environment and the flock will need year round management, but producing in this way can provide some reassurance to the buyer that the end product is consistent.
“Locational bias can be another way to add value, as specific breeds native to a certain region can fetch a premium. Mutton is still a very niche product, but if farmers have access to an outlet where it will be valued, it can be a great way to increase profits and enter a new market.”
Founded in 1972 by John and Barbara Dunning, Westmorland, Tebay services prides itself on providing local producers with an outlet to sell their products. It works with more than 70 suppliers, situated within a 30-mile radius of the location.
Offered for the first time in the butchery is a selection of mutton products from local hill farmers. David Morland, head of butchery, said four sheep are currently being killed per week, and the meat is proving popular.
Mr Morland said: “We are keen to provide our customers with a unique product which cannot be bought anywhere else, focusing on a farm to fork experience. The sheep we choose are all Herdwick wether shearlings from upland farms, which are purposely selected for their ability to farm on natural rouge forage. We ensure all prospect sheep are shearlings, as putting an older animal into the supply chain would be challenging consistency and quality control variables.
The key to all our butchery products is traceability, and we are hoping that our mutton market increases in strength as a result.”
Shearlings are killed at about 45-46kg liveweight and Mr Morland emphasises the sheep must be ‘fattened for the job’, rather than pushed to make the weight.
The meat is hung for about a week, before being presented on the shop front for the buyer to choose their size of cut.
“We want to give the consumer control,” he says, “and we do this by giving them an insight into the animal they are eating and giving them choice.”