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Sheep farming dictated by the tides

Listed in Wales’ top four areas most at risk from coastal erosion is the salt marsh common at Llanrhidian on the Gower Peninsula.

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The perilous stretch comprises 1,619ha (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 meters (10 yards).

 

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.


Bombs

Adding to the common’s obstacles, it is also littered with bombs remaining from World War II and the Royal Navy’s bomb disposal team regularly sweeps the marsh looking for explosives.

 

Because of this, vehicles must stick to the 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.

 

There are no traditional grasses on the marsh but salt herbs grow, which sheep graze. These herbs are said to be high in sodium and iron and change the taste of the lamb reared on the marsh.

 

Forage cannot be put out to service sheep on the herbal pasture, but in extreme cases they can be put on the sand.

 

Rowland says: “Every farm has a certain number of grazing rights on the marsh, and ours work out as five sheep per acre.”

 

Dan and Rowland’s working lives revolve around the tides, as the common spends one week each month submerged underwater.


Marsh

Marsh

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.

 

The tide table is bought at the start of each year and dictates the timing of all major jobs on the farm. Every New Year, the shearers are booked for a week during high tide, when the 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 three years now. They are easy lambing and fast growing, which are the two main things we look for.”

 

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Grazing

Sheep are moved up and down the marsh, according to the tides and they are able to graze the entire common for one week in four. Two weeks are then spent moving the sheep from the low areas on the marsh and away from the rising tide, and the other week they are kept completely off the marsh.

 

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 are 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.

 

But are there any health benefits of keeping sheep so close to salty water?

 

Dan 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.”

 

Rowland first discovered the concept of salt marsh lamb from the continent.

 

"I heard about salt marsh lamb from France and thought we could do that, particularly as lambs in the market were only fetching £15-£20 per head.


Speciality

Speciality

Identified as a speciality meat in the UK only in recent years, in France, where it is known as l’agneau pré-salé, it has long been seen as a premium product.

 

“About 10 years ago we teamed up with a neighbouring farm and started selling our own lamb under the name Gower Salt Marsh Lamb.

 

“At that point we were marketing about 10 per cent of our lambs ourselves, now we are doing about 70 per cent. The remainder go to Dunbia, but this number is ever decreasing.”

 

They joined together in a co-operative with their neighbour, Colin Williams, who usefully is a butcher. Dan and brother, Will, also undertook a butchery course, funded through Farming Connect.

 

Gower Salt Marsh Lamb is run as a co-operative, paying its two producers a premium of £5 per head and running as a not-for-profit enterprise.

 

Rowland says only lambs which spend more than half of their life grazing the salt marsh will be sold under the salt marsh name. He also says carcase balance can be a problem.

 

“Two years ago no one wanted shoulders, now legs are the hardest joint to shift. A lot of demand trends are fuelled by cookery programmes on the television.”

 

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Trade

Lamb is sold from the distinctive yellow farmhouse which is situated right next to the Cadw owned Weobley Castle, one of the few surviving fortified mansions in Wales. Dan believes the shop would struggle without the castle generating a passing trade.

 

Butchers are supplied locally in number of local pubs and restaurants and further afield in Shepton Mallet and Bristol.

 

The co-operative has received an array of awards over the years, with the taste believed to be influenced by their unusual grazing.

 

Dan says: “Because of the lambs’ unusual diet, these lambs have a different taste. I think it is a stronger taste, but yet not so lamby.”

 

From Christmas to June, lamb is sold frozen to ensure year-round supply. Orders are delivered by courier.


Ideas

Ideas

Also part of the Pasture for Life scheme, lambs are not fed any concentrates but 8ha (20ac) of fodder beat are grown each year and 250 grass silage bales made.

 

The business does not spend much money on advertising, saying they do not really 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.

 

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.

 

He says: “We would like to expand our butchery facilities but it is just so expensive.”

 

Dan is active within the industry and is a National Sheep Association Next Generation Ambassador and was part of Farming Connect’s Agri Academy group in 2013.

 

“I think it is good to be involved in industry groups such as the ones run by the NSA and Farming Connect as it brings you together with like-minded people to discuss and share ideas.”

Farm facts

  • 1,000 mule ewes
  • 250 Suffolk mule ewe lambs
  • Lambs from ewe lambs are sold as stores
  • Lambing inside in February and outside in April.
  • Possible reduced worm threat and improved foot conditions due to salt water
  • Selling 70 per cent of their lamb through the Gower Salt Marsh Lamb co-op
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