The commercial challenges of running a pure Manx Loaghtan flock forced a rethink on the breeding policy at a Dorset farm.
Lambs from the purebreds were taking up to 18 months to finish. “They were earning us next to nothing because it was taking so long to get them to that point of sale and buyers weren’t willing to pay very much for them,’’ recalls Cameron Farquharson, who farms with his wife, Miranda, and their four children.
“It is OK to sell that type of carcass into niche markets, but in a commercial situation it is a no-no. We knew we had to become more commercial.’’
Crossing the Manx Loaghton with another breed seemed to be the way forward and after researching possibilities the Southdown was at the top of their list.
They visited Southdown breeder, Adam Brown, at Tiverton with the intention of buying a ram, but came home with eight animals. “We bought a ram and seven ewes, that was never the plan!’’ laughs Cameron. “We liked the look of the little chaps.’’
That was five years ago and the Farquharsons now have 500 ewes and lambs, including 200 Southdown crossbred ewes produced from four rams all sourced from Adam.
“Instead of waiting 18 months we now have a good, medium sized animal we can sell at nine months,’’ says Cameron.
“The Southdown cross consistently kills out at 18-21kg deadweight.’’
As a chef who produces up to a thousand meals a day at an independent boarding school, Cameron is aware of the importance of using quality ingredients in cooking and that extends to the meat he produces.
“The consumer quite rightly expects good quality lamb and we have to meet that expectation which we do with our lamb.’’
Cameron hails from Melrose in the Scottish Borders where he worked as a gamekeeper before moving to Dorset to work as a chef. That was 21 years ago and he now combines a career as a chef with farming 200 acres near his home in Higher Kingcombe.
His first introduction to sheep came when he went into partnership with a London-based friend who was keen to farm sheep, or more specifically, brown sheep. “He didn’t want white sheep because that’s what everyone else had, he wanted brown sheep and I was happy to go along with that.’’
They opted for a Manx Loaghton and built up numbers to 100 breeding ewes, making the flock one of the biggest outside the Isle of Man.
When his business partner decided that farming was no longer for him, the Farquharsons took on full ownership of the flock. But, competing against breeds that finished quickly, the commercial limitations of the Manx Loaghton became apparent.
“A lot of farmers just have 25 or 30 Manx Loaghtons and sell the meat to family and friends, but we are farming on a commercial scale and the farm has to make money,’’ says Cameron.
The Southdown appealed because, like the Manx, it is a native breed. Also important were the size and shape, which is a good match for the Manx.
“The Southdown has a nice head, shoulders and back. Our ewes are small so we didn’t want to cross them with anything too big that would give us problems at lambing. The Southdown gives a fantastic cross,’’ says Cameron.
The tups are turned in with the ewes in the first week of December, with lambing getting underway in mid-April. “We don’t have any barns so we need to lamb outside,’’ says Cameron. “It is low input with maximum output.’’
The pure Manx and the crossbreds mostly produce one lamb in their first lambing and twins in subsequent years.
Lambs are born easily and the ewes are good mothers. Lambs grow well on grass and hay with just a small quantity of creep used when they need to be penned for routine jobs. “They are resilient,’’ Cameron observes.
The flock grazes land on and around the Iron Age hill fort at Eggardon Hill, one of the highest points in Dorset, but they cope well in this exposed landscape. “The instinct of the Manx is wild, they can survive on brown leaves and moss, so that trait in the cross is beneficial,’’ says Cameron.
Lambs are sold through livestock markets and direct to restaurants and hotels as well as from the farmgate.
“We use a family-run abattoir which is happy to kill two or three for us at a time.’’
Some of the meat is also used to feed diners at the pop-up restaurants the Farquharsons run from time to time on their farm. For Cameron, it is an opportunity to combine his skills as a chef and to get the whole family involved.
“We have about four a year, in a big tent that we set up on the hill. They are popular and we use as many home-produced ingredients as possible.’’
Another value-added venture for this industrious family is producing luxurious blankets, throws, scarves and garments from the fleeces.
The sheep are shorn at the end of June and the fibre spun into wool at the Natural Fibre Company, Launceston. The wool is then woven into a variety of products by Roger Paulson at his mill near Builth Wells, following designs created by the Farquharsons.
The stylish woollens are sold at agricultural shows and farmers’ markets under the IFJaC’s brand, a name created from a combination of the first letters of the children’s names – Isabel, Francesca, James and Charlotte.
The ewes serve the family well so they are reluctant to cull the older ewes. As a consequence, some of the original ewes are still in the flock. “They have done me a service, so we don’t tend to cull them out if they are still healthy,’’ says Cameron.
The Southdown, he says, has had a very positive influence on the flock. “I think we have got a nice animal. We are competing against some of the big boys, the Texel and Lleyn flocks, but what we have is a good strong lamb that gives us a decent commercial return and survives well in an exposed environment.’’