A Hertfordshire sheep farmer has built up a medium-sized flock in just seven years and sells almost 500 lambs direct to customers annually at a pre-arranged fixed price.
Self-employed machinery contractor, Harry Elsden does not come from a farming family, but the 26-year-old’s enthusiasm for sheep-keeping is evident.
His dream is to occupy a ring-fenced farm, but in the meantime he spends several hours each month on moving his sheep between parcels of rented land belonging to half a dozen different landlords.
To maximise the output from lamb sales, he operates a mainly flying flock of 270 mixed breed ewes.
These were originally of North Country Mule or Lleyn breeding, but more recently he has buying in Suffolk cross Cheviot Mules and retaining a number of Hampshire Down-sired females.
Some three-quarters of the total go to Hampshire Down tups from his small pedigree ‘Hertford’ flock, while the Hampshire cross-breds are put to a Hampshire cross Beltex. The Beltex are bred from his own unregistered females, which are run commercially alongside.
He finds this crossbreeding system ideally suited to his farming practices and to the demands of his customers.
“The Hampshire Down ram brings the thriftiness, ease of growth and carcase and eating qualities that are essential for making my policy work,” says Mr Elsden.
“The lambs have rapid growth rates and the ability to finish off grass with minimal or no concentrate input.
“A Hampshire Down carcase has the potential to achieve the top grading specification. Most of my lambs will grade E and U, with a handful of R grades. I aim for a 42kg plus liveweight and 22-23kg deadweight.
“As a sire, the Hampshire Down cross Beltex will produce a very similar lamb but white-headed, although markings are not important to me. Its lambs will improve high carcase grade consistency, without compromising eating quality and growth rates.”
Lamb is supplied every month of the year with the exception of February and March, so some 20 Hampshire
Down ewes and a similar number of commercials are lambed in December and January. Like the main flock, which is lambed from mid-March, they are kept in a straw-bedded open building with access to a run-out area.
The housing will hold just 80 ewes and therefore the lambing period is staggered, with tup raddles changed weekly. Ewes and lambs are turned out within a couple of days and a minority is lambed outdoors.
Changes to farm support in favour of environmental policies and the growing popularity of cover crops are two factors which have benefited Mr Elsden’s business.
However there are challenges as he has little or no control over the way in which the rented land is managed, he points out.
All the grassland falls within roughly 10-mile radius of his Hertford base and is rented on an annual basis.
He stresses that his system would be much more difficult to operate without the help of his Border Collie, Jill.
“In the winter the sheep will graze cover or forage crops.
They vary from year to year; last season they were kept on stubble turnips and for 2019/20 they have a mix of oats, vetch and radish.
The sheep are also used as a management tool on land belonging to two local wildlife trusts, but my best quality grazing is silage aftermath,” he adds.
“Concentrate feeding is not offered until the month before lambing, when they will build up to 0.5kg/head/day; the winter-lambers are also fed for the first eight weeks. The early lambs are creep-fed, but the rest will finish off grass.”
Key to Mr Elsden’s sheep enterprise success is the Tewin Bury Hotel in Welwyn, Hertfordshire, which was originally a working farm.
For the past six years, he has rented the 32 hecatres (80 acres) of grassland surrounding the hotel, as well as the lambing accommodation and storage for his equipment.
The hotel hosts weddings in three separate venues and offers a conference centre, two restaurants and a private dining area; the business started off as a farmhouse bed and breakfast in the 1980s.
Lamb features prominently on the menu and on average the hotel takes three or four lambs each week throughout the year.
Other local businesses, including a farm shop, a local golf club, several butcher shops and a number of independent restaurants also take lamb.
A fixed price is negotiated per kilo deadweight for customers including butchers, while about 100 lamb boxes containing a variety of cuts are marketed at £130 each, leaving Mr Elsden with £90/head after processing costs. The boxes are usually delivered to the customer direct from the abattoir.
“My customers want top quality meat and they like a certain amount of fat cover, to improve its flavour,” says Mr Elsden. “They are also looking for a slightly heavier carcase than some of the alternative markets demand.”
The Hertford flock of Hampshire Downs was established with the purchase of two in-lamb pedigree ewes from the Cambridgeshire-based Pode Hole flock in 2012.
Little time is left for showing, which he considers a ‘hobby’, but a pair of Mr Elsden’s home-bred Hampshire Down ewe lambs won their pairs at the Three Counties and he had breed champion with a home-bred ram lamb at Suffolk County in 2016.
The 2019 season saw his bought-in shearling ram, Birchfield Talisman, awarded four breed championships and inter-breeds at county shows; it is shared with D. Middleditch and Son of Sudbury.
Other animals have taken breed championships over the years, including the Suffolk and the Lincoln. Sheep have been placed at breed association events, but the red ribbon has eluded him to date.
“My aim for the pedigrees is not primarily to win at shows, although I enjoy exhibiting my livestock,” he notes. “The goal is to produce the type of Hampshire Down tup that will suit the commercial farmer.
“My Hampshire Downs must be able to convert forage on a range of different types of pasture and survive over winter in some fairly exposed fields.
My top price for a tup so far is £750, with ewes up to £450gns; prices like these make a welcome addition to my income.”
The future direction of the business is to expand the commercial flock to about 400 ewes and sell 20 breeding rams a year to the commercial market.
If he can maintain his market outlets and continue to command a price premium, he is on track to becoming a full-time shepherd, he says.
“I do not receive farm support, but once I move up to an additional 100 or so ewes, I will make farming my main business, although I may still supplement my income with machinery contracting.
“I am always looking for more land and I would consider becoming a farm tenant.
My other options include share farming or a contract arrangement.
I will have to see what the years ahead hold but it would be nice to be able to reduce the amount of money that I spend on fuel, travelling between my parcels of land,” says Mr Elsden.