Breeding for performance as well as type is the focus for the Sercombe family’s Dalby flock of pedigree Charollais.
According to Charles Sercombe, the most valuable animals are good looking, have a good pedigree and a high index.
He says: “Our aim has always been to breed sheep which are the total package with the right type, a proven pedigree and good performance figures and it is these sheep which are worth the most money.”
This policy has led to a string of high profile showring successes as well as his Dalby unit being the top rated Charollais flock on performance for three years running.
From a Leicestershire dairy farming family, Mr Sercombe has kept sheep of his own since he was a teenager, usually accommodated on parcels of rented land across a wide area.
He says: “I was heavily involved in Young Farmers stockjudging competitions so had the opportunity to see a lot of breeds of sheep and tried quite a few.
“I was looking to establish a pedigree flock and wanted something different which would make me some money.
“After visiting the Royal Show in 1986, I came away convinced Charollais was the breed for me and, as far as I am concerned, it still ticks all the boxes, producing easily fleshed, fast growing lambs.”
The pedigree Charollais flock was started with three ewe lambs and a ewe from Jenny Harrison Smith.
Their lambs were sold the following year to fund the purchase of more ewes and the pedigree flock began to increase in size, although for many years the sheep were lambed in a different place each time.
Throughout the early 1990s, Mr Sercombe worked in the dairy genetics industry including setting up his own artificial insemination company.
When the cattle sector was decimated by the 1996 BSE crisis he went to work for Nottinghamshire farmer Noel Baseley, who had Charollais and Lleyn flocks, as well continuing to expand his own flocks of Charollais, Lleyns and commercial ewes.
In 1999 Mr Sercombe and his wife, Helen, secured the tenancy of a county council dairy farm at Frisby on the Wreake, Melton Mowbray. Initially just 20 hectares (50 acres), the holding has been built up over time to 202ha (500 acres).
The couple started milking 50 cows, but these were sold when the demand for dairy cows for restocking soared after the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak.
The bull calves had been retained and more beef stores were bought to finish.
Mr Baseley’s flock was dispersed in 2000 and the Sercombes gradually phased out the cattle, giving them the opportunity to focus entirely on sheep.
They started performance recording in 1990 and joined the Sire Reference Scheme in the mid- 1990s.
“This really gave us the incentive to breed for performance,” says Mr Sercombe, adding one of the flock’s early influential rams was Cairnhill Commander.
“We bought a share in him as a lamb after he had been reserve champion at the Royal Highland,” he says.
“He went on to win the shearling ram class and be reserve male champion at the 1996 Royal Show and put the flock on the map as far as showing was concerned.”
The scrapie genotype 1 ram, Arjane Master Mac was bought at the Lichfield premier sale in 1998.
“The national scrapie plan was introduced in the aftermath of BSE with all sheep being blood tested at the government’s expense on the condition that any found to be susceptible to scrapie were culled,” Mr Sercombe says.
“It worked very well and it is a shame the Government ran out of money and scrapped it. If it had carried on for another two years, the UK could have had scrapie-free status.
“Most pedigree breeders continue to test on a voluntary basis and we only ever use genotype 1 stock rams. The Charollais Sheep Society requires all rams to be tested for scrapie genotype before they can be registered.
“This also gives us a bank of DNA for reference.”
Master Mac was the sire of Dalby Aramis, which sold for 2,300gns to Robert Gregory in 2000 and Dalby Blaster Bates which was the sire of the flock’s most successful sheep, Dalby Champagne.
It achieved a lifetime’s ambition for Mr Sercombe when winning the breed championship at the 2003 Royal Show and then going on to take the inter-breed title at the 2005 Royal Welsh, the first Charollais ever to do so.
This accolade was repeated in 2008 with Rockvilla Golden Promise, a ram bought from David Mawhinney in partnership with Richard and Mary Tulloch, which was also breed champion at the Royal Show in 2007.
“Golden Promise changed the flock,” Mr Sercombe says.
“He worked particularly well on daughters of Rutland Ensign, another ram we shared with the Tullochs.
“We started to develop a high index line which was unique in that it combined growth and muscle, whereas up until then, it had been one or the other trait.
“We have developed high performing female lines over the years by identifying female families which outperform their contemporaries.
“We flush two or three of the best ewes each year and they have to be proven winners which have bred well.
“It is all about blending type with performance and proves it is possible to breed show winners with good indexes.
“These sheep usually breed on and using high index sheep reduces the chance of failure. But it is important they are not too fat. It is easy to overfeed.
“We do not push our sheep as we sell about 80 pedigree rams onfarm for commercial use each year and those customers want rams which are fit to work and last.
“The direction of travel post-Brexit is going to be for more efficient sheep. The future is going to change and it is only possible to measure performance if you record it.
“Growth, muscle and fat will be important but we will also be having to look at other traits such as feed conversion rate, environmental impact and health and welfare.
“We are going to have to produce better carcases with more meat in all the right places. Most UK processors want more loin, not necessarily backend.
“Lambs need to finish quickly at the right weights to hit spec. The less time they are on this planet, the less methane they produce and breeding programmes will have to reflect this.”
As well as being part of the Signet recording scheme the Sercombes have their own recording system for all sheep based on lambing ease and maternal instincts.
Every lamb is also scored on a scale of 1-5 for vigour, head cover, wool coverage and skin thickness.
“This gives us the opportunity to make decisions and cull where necessary,” Mr Sercombe says.
“We want easy lambing ewes which produce fast growing, well fleshed lambs.
“Over the years, we have increased by a point and a half on head cover and skin thickness and introduced more wool.
“We have done this by careful selection of female lines and some line breeding.”
By 2011, the pedigree Charollais flock had grown to 300 and the decision was taken to hold a Silver Anniversary sale.
All the sheep were sold except the ewe lambs, with 104 sheep averaging £960/head and setting a new female record for the breed with the two-shear ewe Dalby Jezzabelle, selling for 7,000gns.
This gave the family the opportunity to reassess and although Charollais numbers have been built back up to about 120 ewes, which are run alongside 200 pure Lleyns and 200 Abermax ewes, there are no plans to increase pedigree numbers.
“I felt we were too exposed to the pedigree market and needed to increase our commercial ewes,” Mr Sercombe says.
As a result, they took on another 202ha (500 acres) of land eight miles away and established a commercial flock of 1,600, mainly Lleyn type ewes which are put to terminal sires.
The aim is to sell 3,000 finished lambs a year, all of which go to St Merryn, Merthyr Tydfil, on a Tesco contract, with about 600-700 ewe lambs kept as replacements.
However, Charollais remain at the heart of the business with showing providing a vital shop window for the flock as well being sociable occasions for the whole family.
Mr and Mrs Sercombe’s daughter, Victoria, 21, has her own Micklehills Charollais flock and Grace, 13, has her Bubble Gum flock of Blue Texels.
William, 15, has some Lleyns, but other sporting commitments are preventing him from showing at moment.
One of the best rams produced in recent years has been Dalby Ranieri which was breed champion at Nottinghamshire and Royal Three Counties, where it was also reserve inter-breed champion.
“As good a lamb as I have ever bred, he has left a fantastic stamp on the flock,” Mr Sercombe says.
“He was 10 per cent better than any other Charollais lamb that year and his first crop of lambs averaged 3,000gns.”
The family attends about eight shows a year and for the last two years has taken the breed championship at every show they have attended.
“Our aim is to win one interbreed every year, which is difficult to do but we like to have a pool of show sheep to pull from and not just take the same ones out to every show,” Mr Sercombe says.