Husband and wife team Neil and Lynda make a formidable team and together their commitment to being the best they can be has ensured the creation of a robust farming enterprise. Sheila Coleman finds out more.
It is probably fair to say sheep were not the central part of Neil Perkins’ plan for his family farm at first. But, through innovation, commitment and learning, the Pembrokeshire farm is at the forefront of breeding and flock management.
The Perkins family has been at Dinas Island, a 110-hectare (270-acre) coastal holding between Newport and Fishguard, since 1947 and have been tenants of the National Trust since 1987. In total, the farm enterprise now covers 200ha (500-acre), which is partly owned.
Neil farms in partnership with his wife Lynda and father Roger, with breeding high-performance meat sire Abermax rams for Innovis the primary focus, plus Aberfield cross-bred females to sell as yearlings.
Until the mid-2000s, Dinas Island farm was a mixed enterprise going from traditional beef, sheep and arable to predominantly rearing bull beef. But, a serendipitous combination of experiences changed Neil’s outlook and, the future of the farm.
First, Roger went on a Churchill Scholarship to New Zealand followed by Neil, who undertook his own travels and research on a Nuffield Scholarship to the country in 2005.
The advent of common agricultural policy reform had already made it clear headage was not going to maximise payments and the farm had to stand on its own two feet without subsidies.
Neil says: “I was not 100 per cent into sheep at the time. We had a commercial flock but we couldn’t see how to make it profitable. In 2004 we sat back and thought more about sheep and when the Nuffield Scholarship came through I thought it was an opportunity to find out more.”
During his time in New Zealand, Neil learned the primary focus was on ewe breeding management and discovered the benefit of grazing systems.
“No matter what breed of sheep you have, the feed and grassland management go hand in hand.”
When headage payments took off in the late 1990s the farm had been concentrating on corn-fed bull beef but following the New Zealand experience that enterprise ended and, in 2006, the farm went solely into sheep with a focus on simplifying their system.
“We were running five different breeds here, but a New Zealand farmer told me how impressed he was with Lleyns. So, we looked at them, we liked them, and we bought a nucleus flock of 400 pure-bred Lleyns. Now, 12 years later, the whole flock is home-bred.”
Today the farm has 500 Abermax ewes, plus 1,000 Lleyn ewes and 600 followers, some of these being Aberfield crosses for sale.
He says: “I’ve adapted what I learned in New Zealand and the key thing I discovered is it was not necessarily the things they were actually doing, but it was more that they knew what each sheep was doing.
“So, we began recording everything, from the sheep’s feet traits and lambing, down to mothering ability and milk scores.
“We use single sire tupping, so every lamb is matched to its parentage and we have full control of any bad family lines. Then the performance of the lambs is followed through when we dose the lambs on the conveyor every three to four weeks when we take their weight.”
An investment was made in the farm’s recording procedures and its technically advanced management system has led to the relationship with Aberystwyth-based genetics company Innovis. Now 50 per cent of the farm’s business is with the company.
“The conveyor was one of our biggest investments, but because of our recording work we were approached by Innovis to breed for them,” says Neil. “We became an Abermax breeder and this is now a major part of our sheep enterprise and takes up the main amount of time.”
The farm’s other significant investment has been the sheep shed as its exposed coastal location means lambing is done indoors. But when cows are outside they follow a New Zealand-inspired rotational grazing system with no supplements added outdoors.
“Our main focus is to breed healthy animals which are good enough to sell to other farmers,” he says.
The ewes are housed about eight weeks before lambing and are fed and housed according to their pregnancy scanning results. The indoor feed costs are kept low by mixing the farm’s own silage in a mixer wagon.
Lambs are then tagged, weighed and recorded to their mother within 24 hours of birth. Ewes are scored on their mothering ability, milk production and ease of lambing before being turned out onto the rested grass at a rate of 12 ewes/ha (five ewes per acre).
The fields average 10ha (24 acres) and are split with sheep netting in the middle.
Ewes are turned out equally between the two halves and after three weeks the halves are divided into six with electric fences. About 120 ewes are then mixed together and rotated around the six, four-acre paddocks until weaning.
Given it is a closed flock, the natural dryness of the land means fluke is not too much of a problem, but the current hot weather is presenting its own challenges.
“There is plenty of dry matter in the grass, but we are totally burnt off, and the farm looks like a desert. My son calls it ‘the ranch’. If it carries on, we will have to put feed down.”
But long after the weather conditions have changed, farmers will still be facing the issue of the UK’s departure from the European Union, an issue Neil has strong opinions on.
“I have concerns about what Brexit will do; it is an unknown and could go one way or another.
I’d like to think we have a positive future.
“Wales is largely grass-based agriculture which makes a beautiful country and I think the sheep industry plays a big part in its maintenance. We need sheep to keep the beauty of Wales and it is down to the levy boards to keep the markets aware of our quality product.”
The Perkins family’s efforts and excellence in sheep breeding have not gone unnoticed and the farm has received numerous awards and plaudits for its livestock and grassland management.
Neil has also been a speaker at the Oxford Farming Conference, and Lynda, who he met at agricultural college, has been NFU Welsh Woman Farmer of the Year.
However, the couple, who have three children, relish their family time and try to balance this with the demands of running a farm and a busy tourism business.
Neil admits while it’s an honour to be recognised for his work, he doesn’t let the farm completely take over his life and enjoys ‘getting out in a kayak or boat with the family, as well as enjoying playing rugby.’
Of course, living on the Pembrokeshire coast means tempting beaches are not far away and there are some spectacular places to visit near the farm, which has led to the family diversifying into tourism.
Located in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park on Dinas Head, the island is separated from the mainland by marshland and a stream which runs in the valley between the beaches of Cwm-yr-Eglwys (Church in the Valley) – which is home to the remains of the 12th century St Brynach’s Church – and Pwll Gwaelod (Bottom Pool).
Jetting into the sea, Dinas Head is on one of the most popular stretches of the coastal path.
From its northernmost tip, where the cliffs rise to 140 metres (465 feet), it boasts stunning views of Cardigan Bay, the Llyn Peninsula and, on a clear day, the top of Snowdon and even the Wicklow Mountains across the Irish Sea. It is little wonder visitors travel to see this glorious part of Wales and many choose to stay at the Perkins’ campsite and holiday cottages.
The campsite was set up at Dinas Island in 1990 shortly followed by a holiday cottage, and more holiday cottages following at Hendre Farm a few years later.
“It wasn’t just the land we were keen for when we bought Hendre, it was also the potential to convert the outbuildings and, while the tourism side of things is a separate, stand-alone business to the farm, it is another income stream for the farm with succession planning also firmly in mind.
“The cottages and campsite get more than 1,000 guests a year, and Lynda is keen to explain to them about farming. We have school visits and we are keen to educate children about farming.”
So, with such a busy enterprise, does the family get the opportunity to go on holiday themselves?
“We do get away,” says Neil. “And like most farmers, we’ll be going to the Royal Welsh Show.”