Farmer, butcher and breeder believes the Southdown delivers on all fronts

  Andrew Hudson sees a good future for the Southdown breed.    

Andrew Hudson sees a good future for the Southdown breed.

 

From  breeding  through  to  butchery,  Andrew Hudson’s  focus  is  on  producing  the  best  quality products possible.

Breed  is  the  starting  point  -  using  the  finest breeds  creates  a  unique  depth  of  flavour  that gives his butchery business an important point of difference from other retailers and is a reason why he has such a loyal customer base.

Andrew  had  been  finishing  rare  breed  pigs  for a local butcher when he added four in-lamb Southdown ewes to his livestock enterprise in the village of Smallburgh, near Norwich.

“I wanted some sheep to keep the grass down in  an  orchard  and  bought  four  ewes  from  Hugh Clark’s Moulton flock at a sale in Newmarket.

“I  didn’t  know  much  about  Southdowns  at  that time  but  they  were  on  the  Rare  Breeds  Survival Trust’s list – and they looked quite cute!’’

When  those  ewes  lambed,  Andrew  kept  the progeny and expanded the flock.

Fast forward 20 years and the pedigree Gragunn flock of Southdowns now numbers 95 in addition to 30 Southdown x Charollais ewes.

Andrew  started  growing  numbers  in  the  early 2000s, at a point when he became a partner in Tavern Tasty Meats, a butcher’s shop in Swafield, North  Walsham,  which  specialises  in  traditional and rare breeds.

“My  partner  primarily  ran  the  shop  but  as  time went on I became more involved and I bought my partner out in 2015,’’ explains Andrew, whose wife,  Claire,  is  a  joint  director.  They  have  since opened a second butcher’s shop, at Horning.

Dual role of farmer and butcher

Andrew’s dual roles of farmer and butcher are a good  combination.  “Being  a  butcher  helps  you to fine tune what you are doing as a farmer, you don’t always get it right but you know what you are aiming for.

“Some  farmers  don’t  understand  their  market fully and when they don’t hit the grades needed they are penalised for it. We know what we need to achieve.’’

He  runs  the  farm  at  The  Grange  in  partnership with his mother, Mary. The 220-acre farm with its Grade 1 loam soil is mostly down to arable with grazing fields rented in for the sheep, 60 acres of mostly Broadland marsh ground.

“The grazing is not the best quality land but the Southdowns do well on it,’’ says Andrew.

Tupping takes place in the second or third week of  October.  Southdown  tups  have  been  sourced from  Michael  and  Gail  Sprake’s  All  Saints  flock, and last September two were acquired from a sale in Melton Mowbray.

Aiming for a good carcass

“We don’t show so what we aim for is something that  is  going  to  throw  a  good  carcass,’’  explains Andrew,  who  keeps  the  tups  with  the  ewes  and shearlings for 35 days.

 The Southdown produces the ideal carcass for butchers like Jack Martin, who works for Andrew and Claire at Tavern Tasty Meats.

The Southdown produces the ideal carcass for butchers like Jack Martin, who works for Andrew and Claire at Tavern Tasty Meats.

The flock scans at an average of 145% but it has achieved a scanning percentage as high as 170%.

Ewe nuts and home-produced haylage is fed to the sheep pre-lambing. There is no supplementation at  other  times  but  Andrew  admits  he  has  come close to it during particularly dry summers.

“We have some wet marshes but we have had some summers when we haven’t had rain for two months  and  grazing  does  get  tight.  When  that happens,  we  struggle  to  keep  confirmation  on the lamb but over the years we have picked up enough grass to keep the stock rotating to fresh pasture.’’

The  flock  returns  to  the  farm  to  lamb  indoors, with lambing getting underway on March 17th.

Some  of  Andrew’s  grazing  agreements  preclude him from turning sheep onto the land until April 1st so the earlier-lambing ewes and lambs remain indoors with access to sheltered open yards.

Lambs are weaned at the end of July and he aims for a carcass grade of R3L or better. “As long as I get  R3L  I  am  happy,’’  says  Andrew,  who  has  the lambs slaughtered at an abattoir in Norwich.

“I have been in the game for a while now and it initially took me a while to get the carcass finish right but I am now more experienced at doing that.’’

  A family affair – Andrew and Claire’s children get involved in running the flock.

A family affair – Andrew and Claire’s children get involved in running the flock.

Good stockmanship is the key

A lot of that is down to stockmanship. “It is about making  sure  you  are  worming  at  the  right  time and making sure the lambs have good fodder in front of them. It is important not to push them, they will naturally get to finishing. On the regime we have we don’t get many through to finishing before December.’’

All  the  lamb  –  apart  from  a  few  hoggets  which go to a dealer - is sold through the shop and his customers look forward to the arrival of those first  carcasses.  “Our  customers  like  to  know where the meat has come from and what they are eating, whether that is the lamb, pork or beef so we advertise that we have our own lambs going through the shop. We can provide a level of food provenance that others can’t.’’

Andrew  targets  a  deadweight  of  20kg.  “The Southdowns are not a big sheep and suit this job  well.  With  a  bigger  carcass,  the  lamb  gets expensive because the joints of meat are bigger.

“We can occasionally get the Southdown x Charollais  lambs  finished  earlier  but  they  need supplementary feed to achieve that.’’

Andrew  admits  he  once  had  a  sentimental approach to culling the poorer performers out of the flock but economics swayed that attitude.

“I used to be too sentimental. I might have a good ewe but she would have a difficult lambing. I would think to myself that I should give her a chance at another lambing so I would keep her but at the next lambing she would get mastitis or something else would go wrong.

“I  would  then  question  why  I  had allowed that to happen so now I have a policy of allowing sheep five lambings  and  after  that  they  leave the  flock.  If  they  have  a  problem lambing I don’t put them to the ram because problems at lambing cost a lot in terms of time.’’

Lambs are wormed every 21 days and there is good reason for this says Andrew. “We have some land that I would call ‘sheep sick’ land so if we didn’t  keep  on  top  of  the  worming we would get problems.’’

Foot problems are few and far between so treatment is on a case by case basis. “Every now and then we footbath because we get the odd case of foot rot but we don’t do it as routine,’’ says Andrew.

He sees a good future for the Southdown thanks to a movement back to more traditional carcasses but he acknowledges that is against a backdrop of good demand for very lean meat produced by Continental breeds.

“The Southdown Sheep Society has done a lot to promote the breed as a way forward and there is definitely a place for it,’’ he says.

“Customers come to us because they know the quality of the meat is good and the animals have a bit of fat on them. The Southdown delivers on all fronts.’