Farmland rent prices occupy Max Welton’s thoughts as he seeks to expand his pedigree flock
Competition for land in rural Carmarthenshire is intense so, with even the poorer grassland commanding £100 an acre, his expansion plans are on hold for now.
What sets Max apart from every other farmer in this position is his age; this is a young man who acquired his first Southdown ram at the tender age of seven years and now, aged just 15, runs 22 pedigree breeding ewes at his parents’farm near Llangadog.
Max admits his interest in sheep sets him apart from his peer group.
He has no interest in social media, taking selfies and all the other technology stuff that occupies the lives of teenagers, preferring to use spare time away from the classroom managing and improving the Gilfach flock.
Max’s interest in sheep began long before he bought his first ram. His parents, Steve and Penny, have a large commercial flock and young Max used pester power to persuade them to buy him three Zwartble ewes when he was seven. He then raided his piggy bank and bought a Southdown ram to grow his flock.
Max bred from these for a few years but, with little demand for the offspring for breeding, coupled with the need to feed the Zwartbles throughout the year, he sold the sheep and replaced them with four Southdown ewes.
“I knew quite a bit about Southdowns because we had family friends who had these so I
thought I would have a go at breeding rams from Southdowns,’’he recalls.
“They suited what I was looking for in a sheep because they thrive off hardly anything and are easy to handle and care for.’’
Artificial Insemination provides a leap forward
Max made slow progress at growing numbers because he had few ewe lamb replacements but in 2016 he took a leap forward by using artificial insemination.
“I got approached to swap my ram for semen that a breeder had imported from New Zealand,’’ he says. “She had bought the semen to use on her Suffolks but decided that she wanted a ram instead.’’ That semen was from a Clifton Downs ram which had sold for $16,000.
Ten ewes were inseminated but Max’s plans were scuppered by one of his father’s Texel rams. “The ram broke in with my ewes and when the lambs were born only half of them were Southdowns!’’
But those that did produce lambs from the Southdown semen did not disappoint. “They were
longer than the ones that we had and that was the direction I want to move in.’’
He lambed the first of these in February 2017, selling ram lambs for an average of £150 a piece and shearlings for £300.
South are good mothers
Max says the Southdown is a good mother and protective of her lambs. “The ewe is milky and although she won’t go for you in the pen she is very cautious about having anyone near her lambs.’’
Lambing is also straightforward. “We never have to assist with lambing,’’says Max.
In the spring of 2017, his family relocated from Hereford, where they had been renting a farm, to Llanddeusant near Llangadog, where they bought 280-acre Gilfach Farm.
Max admits the move was a stressful period. “We were lambing at the time because the move had been pushed back and we had ewes at lots of different locations.’’
But both sheep and their owners have adjusted well to the move. “The Southdowns are thriving. I tupped them in a woody area on the farm, they are the sort of breed that can be run in quite challenging environments,’’says Max.
He tups from September 30th, keeping the rams with the ewes for four weeks.
Because Max buys in ewes, he tries to use his own rams as much as possible, however, he bought a Chaileybrook ram which he has used and is very happy with.
The flock mostly scans at over 180%.
The ewes lamb indoors from February 10th. Because they require so little input, Max manages the lambing before and after school with his parents keeping an eye on the animals for him during the day.
One ewe produced a surprise in 2016 –quads. “All four survived for a couple of days but after that we sadly lost two.’’ One of the quad rams was used for tupping in 2017.
Ewes and lambs are turned out soon after lambing and left alone until weaning. Well grown lambs are sold off their mothers and go straight to the abattoir; later in the season lambs are sold through a market.
Lambs are sheared at four months to encourage growth and the wool sold to Devon-based Southdown duvet supplier Jessica Cross.
Max advocates a tough cull policy
Any ram lambs with bad feet are culled. “You have got to be harsh with feet,’’says Max. He also culls animals that don’t have the length he targets.
Max’s plan for 2018 is to register with the Southdown Signet Group to scan for muscle and
fat. “Customers don’t want to buy sheep based on what they look like, these days they want figures.’’
Apart from the lambing period, the flock doesn’t take up too much of his time. “I check on the sheep but never really have to touch them and I hardly ever feed them.
“When I do give them a bit of feed, before lambing, I do this in the morning then get all the other jobs done when I get home from school.’’
School is Bro Dinefwr at nearby Llandeilo. He plans to further his education at agricultural college and to then venture overseas for a while to shear.
Making a name for himself
Max has already made a name for himself among Southdown breeders. In 2017, he won the Southdown Sheep Society’s newcomer flock competition; also the Paynter Wool Trophy for the flock with the best wool.
In 2018 he is aiming to AI the entire flock to accelerate improvement. “I still have a few short ewes and want to increase the length overall. I also want to increase numbers.’’
But to increase numbers he will need to find more land - Steve and Penny have a flock of 1200 Lleyn, Poll Dorset and Cheviot ewes. They don’t charge Max rent for his ewes –he provides labour in return - but are drawing the line at further expansion.
“I’m hoping to take on some land but it isn’t easy to come by and the figures have to stack up,’’says Max.
He admits he first went into breeding Southdowns as a hobby but quickly came to realise the potential of the breed.
“Southdowns were the original terminal breed. Their popularity dwindled but now people are
rediscovering their potential for finishing on forage-based systems.
“They are fast growing and can be sold off their mothers without the need for supplementary
“Dad has used my rams on over 300 ewes this year and a few of my rams have been sold to family friends to be used over different breeds. I’m very excited to see the results!’’