Christmas is the busiest time for butchers, when consumers take more time to shop on their local high streets for the best quality meats. Laura Bowyer visits one south Wales farm with the butchery trade at heart.
There are about 15,000 South Wales Mountains in the country.
Even when they were in school, childhood sweethearts Cath and Mike Roberts always wanted to buy a farm, mainly to pursue their joint passion for Welsh breeds.
At the beginning of their working lives, Mrs Roberts was a nurse and Mr Roberts worked as an electrical engineer down the pits for British Coal and later as a project engineer with a local electricity distribution company.
After a number of moves, and some hard work, the pair managed to purchase the 36-hectare (88-acre) Penrhiwgwaith Farm, near Blackwood, Caerphilly, which lies at 425 metres (1,400ft) above sea level, 30 years ago.
Mrs Roberts says: “When we moved here there were no real fences or sheds. We had to start nearly from scratch while keeping our jobs to be able to build up the farm. We hardly spent anything on the house to start with, just the farm.”
These days, the farm runs 200 South Wales Mountain ewes and 20 Welsh Black cattle, both breeds, they say, are well adapted to the terrain of the ex-coal mining area.
The couple have been involved in Cig Mynydd Cymru (Welsh Mountain Meats) since its conception, a Welsh breed butchery and joint venture between five local farming families, established to secure an outlet for local produce.
The couple keep 20 Welsh Black cattle.
Ten years ago, the couple became involved in a group run by Agriscop, a Welsh Government-funded personal and business development initiative, partly aimed at encouraging farmers to diversify, which led to the development of the butchers’ shop.
Initially, Mrs Roberts says, they were interested in buying a wind turbine, mainly due to Mr Roberts’ experience in electrical engineering and the wind speed on top of the Bedwellty Hill, which they farm.
She says: “But the group’s conversations soon changed to focusing on adding value to our existing products, and reducing food miles.”
Two other group members, Lorraine Howells and John Thomas, both relatively local farmers, were involved in the initial conversations about the butchers group and they soon recruited Huw Williams and mother and son Sue and the late Ted Williams.
After looking at several different properties, they settled on a shop on Perrott Street, Treharris, a town previously without a butcher, some five miles from the farm.
Every process in the meat’s journey from farm to butcher’s counter is carried out within a 20-mile radius of the shop, including Dai Havard’s abattoir in Caerphilly.
Three or four lambs are sold through the shop each week along with one beast from the co-operative group.
On their own farm, where they have since installed a wind turbine (500KW) and solar energy installation for domestic use on-farm, Mrs Roberts says they have always been keen on record-keeping.
She says: “I have about 20 years’ worth of records here. At first it was because we were Signet Performance Recording, but we stopped three years ago because we could not find other performance recording flocks to buy rams from.
“We were weighing lambs at six and 20 weeks and then scanning eye-muscle depth and back fat.”
Lambs are still all tagged at birth, and their dam and sires recorded. Records have been made in a diary, but Mrs Roberts plans to begin doing this electronically.
Rams are sold through the society sales at Nelson and Penderyn.
Rams are sold for breeding through Nelson and Penderyn ram sale, and Mr and Mrs Roberts once held the society’s breed record for a ram at 3,200gns, which has since been surpassed.
Mr and Mrs Roberts were keen show people, taking their annual family holiday in Builth Wells for the Royal Welsh Show, where one year they took the South Wales Mountain reserve champion title with a pair of ewe lambs.
Finished lambs are sold partly through Monmouthshire Livestock Centre, Raglan and St Merryn Meats at Merthyr Tydfil, between 38-42kg, with lambs fit to go from June onwards.
Mrs Roberts says: “We get a better price for lambs when we sell them through the shop, which our partners take turns to supply.”
Mrs Roberts says: “The South Wales Mountain ewes are very hardy, good mothers and built for this sort of terrain. Because of this, the breed seems to be heading further north into mid-Wales and beyond.”
Ewes are scanned and split according to litter size, and this year they scanned at 180 per cent.
Lambing outside in early April in fields close to their yard, ewes and lambs are brought inside to mothering pens for the first couple of days of life and so they can be tagged and the appropriate records made. South Wales Mountains, or Nelson-type Welsh Mountains, are not to be confused with their Talybont-type cousins, which Mr Roberts says have longer legs and a more wool-like coat. Nelson types have a kemp coat and ewes weigh in at about 50kg.
Mr Roberts is the South Wales Mountain breed society development officer and says there are about 15,000 South Wales Mountain ewes in the country, but he believes there are more in the country than on the society’s books.
The farm is almost entirely grass, except for 8ha (20 acres) of swedes which have been planted for the second year, to feed pregnant ewes. Mrs Roberts says they are very happy with the use of swedes as a forage crop.
Haylage is made and Mr Roberts says only two or three bales are needed to take ewes through winter and mineral licks are also put out.
After visiting New Zealand in 2005 on a Hybu Cig Cymru (Meat Promotion Wales) scholarship, the couple returned with an enthusiasm for rotational grazing and now practice it on-farm, moving stock between fields.
Mrs Roberts says: “We move stock depending on numbers grazing and field size. We measure grass by eye.”
Within the Welsh Black herd, 10 cows are kept along with 10 cattle for finishing, and the home-bred bull Cathael Dafydd is used as a stock bull in the spring-calving herd. Heifer replacements are bought from Richard Isaacs, Ynysybwl, as well as using their home-bred females.
Cattle are given a trace element bolus. Mrs Roberts says they do not experience problems with fluke, she believes because there are no watercourses on-farm.
Mrs Roberts says the qualities of the Welsh Black cattle are similar to the attributes of the South Wales Mountain sheep, including mothering-ability.
The couple now run 49ha (120 acres), after purchasing some ground when next door’s neighbouring farm came up for sale.
Mrs Roberts says: “We have just worked hard to get here. We have been through a lot and you realise you just have to enjoy life and make the most of what you have. Having a farm has always been our dream, and we have not tried to push it on to our children in any way, although they do have a good work ethic because of their upbringing.”
Mr and Mrs Roberts have four sons, Rhys, Gethin, Morgan and Carwyn, who is a member of Gelligaer YFC in the Glamorgan Federation and won the NFYFC Situations Vacant competition in 2014, where competitors had to apply for a fictitious job.
The farm is also home to the Cathael stud, breeding Welsh Cobs which are sold off-farm.
She says: “We like selling privately because we can create a relationship with the buyers. We have sent Welsh Cobs as far as Sweden, Finland, France and Germany.”
They used to show at the Royal Welsh Show, including driving and show wagon classes and Welsh Cob in-hand classes.
The couple are partners in Cig Mynydd Cymru butchers' shop in Treharris, Blaenau Gwent.
Between all five farms, 2,500 ewes and 150 cattle supply the shop, which is now celebrating its tenth year.
The company also has an outdoor catering operation which services the South Wales Mountain breed society sales at Nelson and Hafodyrynys, as well as local events.
The co-operative’s partners lamb at slightly different times, to allow a consistent supply of lambs into the shop.
Resident butcher Steve Davies says: “Customers like the fact all the beef and lamb comes from within a 20-mile radius of the shop, although I think this resonates with the older generations more than the youngsters.
“We hang the animal whole here in the traditional manner. Supermarkets may say their meat is hung for a number of weeks, but it is cut up first.
“The Christmas period is so busy for us, the week before Christmas will probably see our sales treble. We also supply turkeys and chickens from Usk Vale Poultry and geese and ducks from Gressingham over the festive period.”