What began as a hobby has now flourished in to a thriving business for Nick Langston-Bolt and Lucy Eyre, who have built their sheep business from practically nothing. Erika Hay reports.
Getting a start in farming is hard at the best of times, but for a young couple with little experience or money it is almost impossible. Nick Langston-Bolt and Lucy Eyre have shown incredible determination and persistence to reach the point where they are now rearing livestock and selling meat direct to the public.
Three years ago, Nick, after serving ten years in the Royal Navy, was working in recruitment and hated it. Lucy, who is a vet, bought him a birthday present of three pet lambs from Hugh Gillian’s Lleyn flock at Drumcarrow, St Andrews.
She says: “I always said I would marry a sheep farmer, so this was a start.”
Nick opted for a complete change of career, and in 2016 began working at Lundie Farming Ltd, a dairy farm on the outskirts of Dundee, by which time the pet lambs had increased to 13. A further 50 orphans arrived from pedigree Lleyn breeders and formed the foundation of their Langston flock, on rented ground in the area.
Hand-in-hand with a strong business plan for producing and rearing lamb and selling it direct to the public, the young couple applied to the Scottish Government for a Young Farmer’s Start-Up grant in order to buy land.
Lucy says: “We cast our net all over Scotland looking for a parcel of land to buy, but it was difficult because it took eight months for the grant to come through and, we struggled to find a bank which would support us putting down just 30 per cent deposit on a budget of £100,000.
“After bidding unsuccessfully for about nine bits of land, we finally bought 12 hectares (30 acres) in Elgin in January 2018, however, neither of us could find suitable jobs in the area. We had to rent it out to someone else and rent about 45 acres at Lundie.”
They found looking after the sheep the easy bit in the early days, it was the form-filling and dealing with red tape, lawyers and banks that was difficult. The couple, however, have largely put that behind them now and are planning to stay in the Lundie area despite Nick giving up his job (and therefore house) at the dairy last year. They are currently living with friends but hope to eventually build a house on the few acres they own, and Nick now works as a contractor with Tayside Forestry.
Lucy’s background as a large animal vet, with special interest in herd and flock health planning and nutrition, stands her in good stead to be a sheep farmer, and Nick is learning very fast.
Orphan lambs would not be everybody’s first choice of females to start a flock but the intensive ad-lib milk rearing system the couple developed means there is no discernible difference between the pets, and the 50 ewes and gimmers they bought in.
In 2018 they lambed 90 ewes and gimmers, and this spring they lambed 140 with scanning 233 per cent and live lambs at turnout 211 per cent.
Lucy puts the success rate down to winter management of the ewes. Once the ewes are scanned in January, they are clipped and housed in a large shed which the couple managed to buy by re-mortgaging and taking out an unsecured loan.
She says: “We had no grass to flush them on, so we were surprised when they scanned so well, however we winter clip them and believe that makes a huge difference. I cannot believe that more people do not winter clip; ewes can be stocked 50 per cent tighter, dry matter intake is increased by 20 to 25 per cent with the knock-on effect of improving lamb weights by 150g per head and, also lamb vigour.”
Nick said that another advantage of having them shorn is being able to see at a glance anything that is a little thin, and once they are turned out the ewes seek shelter in bad weather to protect themselves and thus their lambs.
Triplets are fed soya and sugar beet twice a day measured at 50g per day per lamb carried, plus ad-lib hay from six weeks before lambing. Twins receive ad-lib hay and soya and sugar beet once a day until two weeks before lambing and singles are on ad-lib forage only.
Lucy says: “The rumen protected soya is expensive at £465 per tonne, but it still works out cheaper than feeding a compound.”
Lambs are finished from 12 to 14 weeks right through to December, and hoggets until May the following year, giving a year-round supply of meat for the Langston Meat boxes. Mutton is also available.
Nick says: “The plan was always to rear and sell our own stock with a focus on welfare and sustainability. We visited many abattoirs before settling for Stagison, the venison abattoir linked to Downfield Deer Farm at Cupar in Fife. It provides ideal facilities in that the lambs arrive at least 24 hours before slaughter and are kept in straw-bedded pens and fed hay before being stunned and killed. I believe this allows the meat to reach its full taste potential.”
The carcases are collected by St Andrews’ artisan butcher, Stuart Minick, who has shops all over Fife. He cuts and packages the meat before the Langston brand label is applied and it is ready to go out fresh to customers.
They have sold meat boxes all over the UK and have started taking enquiries from restaurants including the Old Manse at Blair, Blair Atholl, where chef, Jonny Greer has been very impressed with the product.
Lucy says: “If we can get our product direct to the consumer we can act on any feedback we get, compared to taking them to the market and never hearing of them again. It also adds value which is important, as farming is going to go through big changes in the next 10 to 15 years and we need to think about how to be sustainable without subsidy.”
This is why they have ventured into cattle and pig production recently too.
“We believe the business needs several different income streams to remain robust,” says Lucy.
Nick bought five Jersey bull calves and they are just about ready to be slaughtered at 14 to 15 months, so beef can be added to the meat box menu. There are also five Oxford Sandy and Black pigs to produce pork and bacon. Eggs from their 35 heritage breeds free-range hens are sold in an honesty box at the end of the road.
He says: “The next step is farmers markets and events to showcase our products. We have worked out that we need to sell 30 lambs to cover the cost of chillers and equipment for mobile sales, so we hope to break even after one year.”
Nick is responsible for the website and social media marketing, which is going well but he would like to upgrade the website in time so that orders and payment can be taken. At the moment customers have to phone or email their order.
Alongside producing delicious tasting and ethically produced meat, the couple are keen to develop a name for themselves for breeding high quality stock.
Lucy says: “Grazing is our biggest limiting factor, as it is so hard to rent grass in this area, however if we can, we would like to expand the flock to 500 ewes with a nucleus pedigree flock and perhaps cross some of the others with a terminal sire. But, if grazing remains limited we plan to cull heavily and keep an elite female breeding stock of 150 to 200 ewes and perhaps start selling ewe lambs and maybe tups.”
Despite the struggle the couple have had getting a foot-hold on the farming ladder, the prejudice they have come across and the fact that Lucy has had to keep working full-time to keep them afloat financially, they feel lucky. Lucky to have had the help and support from family and friends, and also lucky to have come into the industry with no pre-conceived ideas, which has allowed them to develop their business in the direction they want while leading a lifestyle they dreamed of.