AN ARTICLE PUBLISHED IN THE LLEYN SHEEP SOCIETY YEAR BOOK 2013
Stonehouse Farm is the base of two livestock businesses established by Richard and Sue Evans during the last
thirty years. It is now home to nearly 800 pedigree Lleyns, 500 other ewes, and 130 Stabiliser cows, all
organic. As a separate business 3000 store lambs are also finished. Although both from farming backgrounds, neither Sue nor Richard inherited
land or a farm. Sue took over her father’s flock of Mules on tenanted land following his death, shortly after she
left college. Richard left college to take an opportunity of shepherding 2000 ewes extensively on MOD land in
“This was an opportunity from heaven for a 21 year old” Richard explains. “Extensive livestock farming has always
been my passion, along with wildlife, particularly birds, so the chance to work on a 12,000 acre SSSI was an extraordinary privilege”.
The flock consisted of 6000 Beulah ewes on a hefted system. Richard says this is where he received much of his inspiration for his current
system. “The sheep were so good at doing our job for us, they lambed themselves, mostly fed themselves, and fenced themselves as a heft is effectively a territorial and social group which you manipulate then allow to manage itself”. Breeding replacements to each heft was critical, and necessitated a closed flock.
Richard moved on from this job to become a self-employed contractor. The light land in Norfolk has always been a lamb finishing area with tens
of thousands of sheep coming in onto thousands of acres of arable by-products such as sugar beet tops and stubble turnips. This provided another extraordinary opportunity for a self-employed shepherd – a winter’s work with daily responsibility for the fencing and welfare of thousands of lambs. This coupled with running a shearing gang, mobile dip and all the other routine sheep work led Richard into haulage, and then marketing. He established Eastern Quality Lamb Ltd, a farmer owned lamb marketing
cooperative servicing the interests of East Anglian sheep farmers who are somewhat out on a limb with regard to marketingopportunities.
Adding value to lambs and shortening supply chains became essential for sheep to remain viable in the late 80s/mid 90s, so Richard became involved in live export. “Not something I would choose, but another fantastic education. We learned a tremendous amount from
French meat traders. They think in terms of food, not commodity, they have a break at midday, and some of them teach you how to get your money back in a foreign language”.
Marriage and the troubles in the live export business led Sue and Richard down a slightly less dangerous route, becoming fully organic at the turn of the century and establishing their own butchery business.
“In ’92, I was lucky enough to find a wife and a farm. I had always been fascinated by organic farming and we now had the land to establish
an organic enterprise. Over a few years we built up to 1200 mules and 140 suckler cows supplying local butchers, including ourselves and Waitrose”.
So I suppose you’re wondering what the relevance of all this is and why I’m telling you about the Evans’ background. Well in 2004 they were
asked by Natural England to set up a flock of ewes to graze endangered heathland. The National flock was depleted by foot and mouth, confidence at an all time low and sensitive land in danger of being undergrazed or not grazed at all.
After a lifetime in sheep farming, after working with millions of sheep, after marketing thousands of sheep in the UK and across Europe, and establishing sheep farming contacts throughout Europe, they had to make a decision:- which breed. “For me, it was simple” Richard explains. “I wanted a hard sheep; these heaths are some of the harshest and driest land in the country. But I still wanted a sheep I could be proud to market, so I wanted a bit of shape. I wanted prolificacy to pay the bills, and the chance to add value to pay back the overdraft. There was, at the time, really only one sheep that ticked all those boxes. The Lleyn. ”After choosing the breed, Debbie McGowan pointed them in the direction of the Greenlaws flock disposal in Aberdeen. “There were 1300 MV Accredited sheep for sale, so we took the opportunity
to sell all our mules and have a clean, fresh start with accredited Lleyns”.
"So many Lleyns are in small, well cared for situations that it would be hard for them to adjust to our conditions" says Richard. "the Greenlaws
were excellent sheep farmers, but their sheep were kept on some pretty harsh country, so we knew they stood a chance with us. Subsequently they've acclimatised, we've had losses, but we get very few now."
In fact the flock has quickly become established as one of the best in the country. Tups were bought with as high genetic merit as possible, mostly from Marcus Bullock (flock number 619) and the flock became signet recorded in 2010. For the last two years the flock has been runner up in EBLEX's 'Most Improved Flock' awards. Lambs from the flock appear at the highest levels in the lists, and the flock has improved 5
times faster than the national average. True to their ethos, the Evans' have chosen to add value to their product by marketing good quality, high genetic merit females to other breeders. They have built up a regular group of repeat customers who return for ewes which are high health, hardy and improving year on year.
This rate of genetic progress is made easier by the libido of the rams and the fertility of the ewes. Rams are mated to at least 80 ewes, up to 120, ensuring that maximum use can be made of high quality expensive rams.
“As I have said, I love to see sheep do everything for themselves. Our lambing system relies on set stocking ewes in groups of 50 – 80.
90% lamb in seventeen days, so in small groups you rarely have too many lambing at once, avoiding mismothering. Stocking rate on much of our land has to be reduced for breeding waders by 15th March so we start lambing at the end of February. Each field has some natural shelter, and the Lleyn ewes make good use of this and are able to withstand even the worst weather”.
The move to individual recording sheep out of doors was a challenging one, but again the breed has helped.
“On our system, interference was kept to a minimum so the last thing I wanted was to handle each ewe at lambing.
However, no tagging, no recording.
No recording, no genetic progress.
I had to bite the bullet. The Lleyn is so quiet, and such a good mother, that it was much easier than I anticipated. We spray the
ewe’s number on her side before lambing so that we can identify her even if we can’t see the tag. We use a small cage to put one lamb in as we tag the other, so the ewe has one lamb to concentrate on. All this is done on the birth site if possible – and without touching the ewe”.
Richard doesn’t believe the Signet recording is enough in itself, so at lambing he also scores the ewes for mothering, temperament and
appearance. “I want to work with quiet sheep, especially as I get older, and if you’re going to sell them, they have to look good. We intend to
build up a flock of good-looking, high index ewes which only get handled for routine jobs”.
To back up and check the EBVs, the ewes are also given an ‘efficiency ratio’, dividing the weight of lamb produced by the ewes weaning
weight. The Lleyn outperforms most other breeds in this respect.
In spite of the poor quality grassland in the Norfolk Brecklands, the Lleyns foraging ability ensures that the male lambs are mostly
sold fat before weaning. Females easily make tupping weight and most are tupped, and then those not required as replacements are sold as shearlings.
“It has been a great experience. With the mule flock I never really felt in control, or that I could make any progress because you had to buy in
replacements. Now we only replace from top quality sheep. We can carefully buy in high genetic merit rams to improve our weaknesses and
consolidate our strengths, we have already improved at 5 times the Signet average, and we can look forward to owning a top quality, improving flock which mostly looks after itself.
I cannot praise the Lleyn highly enough and I am sure that it will continue with a great future within the UK. I do see threats from breeds such as
the N Z Romney, but the Lleyn will stand its ground as long as we concentrate on performance and recording, and we are not distracted by the show ring. Progressive Commercial buyers in the future will be looking more and more towards the paperwork before they look at the sheep.”
The flock’s physical performance is constantly challenged and analysed in comparison to EBLEX top third statistics.
“The Lleyn is quite capable of achieving excellent physical performance” Richard explains.
“She will scan at over 200%, lose no more than 10% of her lambs, and subsequently rear lambs to 40 kilos or more before weaning with minimal
inputs. This should be normal for a progressive well managed flock. What we really like about the breed is that it is capable of achieving these results on very poor grazing and with minimal management.
The Lleyn has a great future, but it has to concentrate on performance recording and improved genetics if it is to compete with highly
advanced import genetics.”