CROSSING the Clun Forest sheep with the Blue Faced Leicester allows the Roberts family to retain their historical tie with the traditional native breed as well as producing a profitable and marketable lamb carcase. Hannah Noble reports.
Situated just 20 miles from the birthplace of Clun Forest sheep, John and Karen Roberts’ farm is home to one of the breed’s largest registered flocks in the UK.
Furlongs Farm, near Ludlow, has been in the Roberts family since Mr Roberts’ parents Gordon and Pat bought it in 1970, but the family’s history with the Clun Forest breed stretches as far back as 1934.
Overlooking Titterstone Clee Hill, one of Shropshire’s well known landmarks, the farm sits at about 213 metres (700ft) above sea level rising to 300m (1,000ft) in places - the perfect backdrop for preserving the legacy of one of the area’s oldest sheep breeds.
Along with their 15-year-old son, Simon, the Roberts’ run a flock of 140 pedigree Clun Forest ewes which provides a solid base for crossing to produce the more commercial and prolific Clun Forest mule.
Mr Roberts says: “The breed is suitable for our farming system, they are hardy and easy to maintain, they are good mothers and they are great for breeding a mule.
“However we could not run them on their own as a pure bred flock, they are not prolific enough so crossing them with the Blue Faced Leicester just takes them up that next step.”
The pedigree Clun Forest ewes lamb at about 160 per cent while the Clun mules tend to produce a bigger crop of lambs, usually with a lambing percentage of about 185-190 per cent.
About 60 per cent of the Cluns are put to a pedigree Clun ram to create replacement ewes for the pedigree flock while the other 40 per cent are bred to Blue Faced Leicester rams to create the Clun mule.
A flock of 200 Clun Forest mules is run alongside the pedigree flock, but they are always kept separate and are put to Suffolk or more recently Texel rams to produce terminal offspring.
The Roberts begin lambing in the second week of March, outdoors during the day and indoors at night, with 90 per cent of the ewes lambing in the first three weeks.
Mr Roberts says: “About eight weeks before lambing all the ewes are put onto dry food in the form of oats and a 24 per cent protein blend. We do not feed them hay unless we really need to in snow for example.
“In the past we got a lot of prolapses so have stopped feeding extra hay and for the last two years we have had much less trouble.”
All the ewes are fed the same, equivalent to about 1kg/head/day of feed up to lambing and right through to weaning in June or July when the lambs are four to five months old.
“The farm is prone to problems with pasteurella, so the moment we wean the lambs they are vaccinated with ovivac, and they are given a mineral drench and a worm drench,” says Mr Roberts.
From lambing to weaning the lambs are fed concentrates along with their mothers and Mr Roberts says this is a good way of assessing the lambs and keeping an eye out for any problems.
Once the lambs are weaned the supplementation of oats and protein blend continues until they are finished and ready for slaughter.
Mr Roberts adds: “Some people say giving them extra concentrate is not cost effective, but when the weather turns rough you can see the advantage, we took some lambs the other week and they had two inches of rain on their backs and it never knocked them back at all.”
Of the farm’s 102 hectares (252 acres), 32 hectares (80 acres) are included in an arable rotation, 16ha (39.5 acres) of which is put down each year to winter and spring oats and winter barley as a means of producing feed for the livestock.
Following on from the winter barley, Mr Roberts grows a crop of stubble turnips which is strip grazed to finish the last of the lambs which remain after December 01.
Once the fat lambs are gone the ewe lambs are turned onto the turnips usually until the first week of April.
Eighty to 100 of the ewe lambs from the Cluns, either pedigree, or mules from the cross with the Blue Faced Leicester are retained as replacements each year.
All the male lambs are castrated at birth and are sold deadweight along with all the Suffolk or Texel ewe lambs out of the mules.
“Some people say giving them extra concentrate is not cost effective, but when the weather turns rough you can see the advantage.
“We start selling lambs at the end of September, Suffolks and Cluns are later maturing lambs so we tend to sell them through October and November and the last up to Christmas,” says Mr Roberts.
The lambs are drafted each week and any hitting the target of 45kg and above are manually handled to ensure they have adequate fat coverage before heading to ABP’s collection centre in Shrewsbury.
The lambs kill out at about 20-22kg, with a carcase classification of R2 or R3L.
He says: “By selling through ABP we have found the Suffolk lambs make about the same price deadweight as they do through the market but the Cluns and Clun mules can make £8 -10 more when sold deadweight.
“But the mules are selling better than the Suffolks this year. [Recently] the mules made £110, the Cluns £106, and we got £102 for the Suffolks - but they were the small ones at the end of the batch.
“Another advantage of selling deadweight is we know if there were any problems with liver fluke or pasteurella for example but this year we haven’t had any problems with fluke or worms.”
Mr Roberts says it is also advantageous to know the price being offered for lambs each week before they go.
If the price drops he is able to wait another week without losing out - something he was not able to do when selling through the market.
All of the ewes have their first crop of lambs as shearlings, and Mr Roberts says he thinks this makes them last longer in the flock.
On average they achieve six crops of lambs from the Clun ewes and four to five crops from the Clun mules.
The family takes about 20 two-year-old ewes to sell at the annual Clun Forest Show and Sale at Ludlow market each year and in 2020 they came away with first and second prize for their two pens of 10 resulting in them scooping the overall championship.
The champion pen went on to break the records for two year olds selling for £192/head.
Mr Roberts says back in the 1960s between 18,000 and 20,000 females were sold at the annual Clun Forest sales held at Craven Arms, but now with just over 70 registered flocks in the breed, this figure is more like 100.
Mr Roberts says: “We used to take about 100 ewes each year to sell at Ludlow in the autumn now we take 20. Less people are wanting the breeding ewes now and it is down to supply and demand.”
They also buy in new pedigree Clun Forest rams most years from the same sale but Mr Roberts says he is restricted with the size of the gene pool available within the breed.
He says: “I have to select on bloodlines because of the breeding and I am a bit restricted what I can buy so sometimes I have to forgo the perfect ram because we already have his bloodlines in the flock and instead buy one which will complement our ewes.”