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Of mutton, meat and selling sheep

PUBLISHED: 08:11 28 March 2014 | UPDATED: 08:49 28 March 2014

Exmoor horn sheep

Exmoor horn sheep

Mutton on the hoof and meat in the freezer isn’t that simple, as  Myc Riggulsford knows

When we first decided to keep sheep, proud owners of seven shiny new acres, the world was a simpler place. Our first choice was naturally to select the breed we should keep, and in the absence of a ready supply of consumer magazines like Baa!, Ewe Mart Monthly, or Which Shearling? we fell back on that old Welsh test and chose the prettiest ones. Well, I am from Abertawe.

Actually, we looked at traditional local breeds from north Devon on the grounds that they would probably do well on our poor quality, slightly upland site between Exmoor and Dartmoor. We also wanted to keep them in a minimal input organic way, and we thought that older breeds would probably do better under these conditions. And I suppose we also wanted to do our bit for rarer breeds, but didn’t want the responsibilty of looking after one that is nearly extinct.
The last selection criteria were for a lighter breed that Jenny, who is only 5’4” (on tiptoe), could catch and turn over herself, and with horns because all proper sheep should have horns. And finally, until the last century, her family farmed in Pyworthy, north Devon, and butchered in Boscastle, Cornwall, for hundreds of years.

Which is how we ended up with Exmoor Horn sheep, or Hornies as they’re laconically known locally. And over the years, we’ve discovered a couple of ways they could have got that name. There are fewer than 200 registered breeders, and the biggest flocks number about 1,000 head. So the breed isn’t really rare yet, but it could be if just half a dozen of the biggest farmers decide to abandon Hornies in favour of earning a living.

With rare breeds, one of the key questions you should ask yourself is – why are they rare? What is it about this breed that makes them unpopular? With Hornies, it could be their Houdini-like escape artistry and startling lack of cooperation during shearing, dagging, foot trimming or any other operation. Uncooperation which they demonstrate, strangely enough, by digging their horns into stuff. Anything really, but especially your unprotected fleshy thighs, which made me, for one, re-evaluate what constitutes suitable underwear for handling sheep. Anything too loose and they can flip your chuddies into a reef knot and apply a tourniquet to your tenderer parts in seconds.

Lambing

The other problems turn out to involve small pelvises, so if the ewe has any trouble giving birth, it takes someone with fairly small hands and forearms to manipulate or untangle the lambs inside, which of course means Jenny. My role is to hold the head or pointy end. 

Hornies also often have singletons instead of twins or triplets, which is fine if you want easier births, and don’t care too much about the financial aspects of smallholding. (Profit?  We smallholders spit on such neo-capitalist concepts!) And they’re a smallish breed, so if you’re trying to supply a supermarket chain with exactly the right sized lamb legs or chops, you’ll have to wait a long time for them to grow up to weight. And by then, they’ll have stopped being lamb, technically. Why is there no UK market for mutton?

Prince Charles himself inaugurated the Mutton Club at the Ritz in an attempt to revive this once favourite and still royal meat. Prince Charles was even awarded the Grand Prix of Gastronomy 2005 for his efforts to put mutton back on the menu. We love it ourselves, but with our small flock of 50 or so Hornies and our expansion to 10 hectares, we still can’t quite produce enough to make the massive marketing effort needed worthwhile as a money spinner.
Local abbatoir

Which is how we came to the situation where we were trying to get our lambs killed in one of the few remaining small local abbatoirs for our own and friends’ consumption. Well, more of a licensed butchers’ yard really. As far as I could make out, they were only allowed to handle six sheep every third Thursday or something. And for some reason, you must be there before 7am – or at least, that’s the delivery slot we’re always given.

Before Foot and Mouth Disease, we had an excellent local chap who came to our farm. Stuart lost his job when the Crediton abbatoir closed down, so he set up as a mobile slaughterman, which was brilliant and completely stress-free for the sheep as they just ambled into a barn they knew well for a little bit of a feed and bang, bolt to the head, bled, and all over in seconds, no fuss or forewarning. Perfect – £8 the sheep and he kept the fleeces.

Before that, I’d killed the occasional one myself for our own consumption – in fact, of our very first six Hornies-with-lambs-at-foot, one of the wethers was called Lunch, so he always knew he had it coming. Otherwise, madness beckons and you end up with hundreds of pet sheep. So one fine summer’s day I led Lunch up the back lane, and popped him off humanely with a shotgun before gutting, skinning and jointing him myself. With some things, I don’t believe in asking someone else to do a job I wouldn’t do myself. Tough, us smallholders.

Of course, after Foot and Mouth, they made it illegal for all practical purposes – both home slaughter and travelling slaughtermen, unless you can eat a whole sheep yourself, in one go, including the hooves. Hence our pre-dawn dashes to the one remaining local small abbatoir, which closed the day after we took our last crop of nearly-mutton down there.

I’m pretty sure it was all legal, we certainly had to fill in enough paperwork. Before Foot and Mouth, the slaughterhouse too was charging £8 a sheep, but it involved three 25 mile round trips if you wanted the livers immediately, a startlingly early start on the day, and of course, terrible travel stress for the poor sheep themselves, but it did mean we could sell the joints on. 

Since Foot and Mouth, the government has made our lives safer by requiring an expensively trained vet to be on hand to read the sheep movement paperwork. So the cost went up to £25 a sheep, and not surprisingly, after struggling on for a few years, our small local abbatoir-cum-butchers went broke and closed down at the end of last year. I hear it may have re-opened now under new ownership. I hope so.

Testing the market

We can’t really decide what to do now – we’ve tried selling sheep couples as starter flocks to fellow Devon smallholders: profitable, but there’s only a limited market.  We’ve tried selling our own butcher-prepared lamb and mutton joints to friends at knock-down rates: loss making and probably verging on breaking food hygiene regulations, and the joints look very fatty to modern eyes, though we don’t charge for the fat.

We took our very first pens to South Molton market to see whether we could get a better return that way. Other people’s lambs went for up to £75, cull ewes for £30-60. Our underweight 12 month old wethers at 29kg average went for £23. Now, fair enough, we were testing the market and we should have fattened them up a bit more, and we took the smallest and least appealing 10 sheep, partly because spring was so late with the lack of rain that we had no grass, but the bidding wasn’t exactly frantic. Actually, not all of them were castrated males, three were ewe lambs who failed their scrapie resistance genotyping tests, so had to be sold for meat.

It’s not worth our while becoming fully organic – the cheapest possible Soil Association registration would be about £500 a year, and on our production capacity of about 30 lambs, that’s adding £1.50 a kilo to the overheads of every lamb, or another £8 a leg, a price north Devon buyers won’t bear, since most smallholders farm nearly organically anyway.

Falling values

It was disturbing but sadly, not surprising, to learn earlier this year that mineral levels in meat and milk have plummeted over the last 60 years. Research reported in the Food Commission’s magazine Food in February this year, and picked up by national newspapers, showed that some minerals levels such as magnesium and iron have dropped by up to 80% since 1940. 

Turkey, bacon, beef, milk and cheese have all dropped alarmingly in their mineral content. Except strangely for Parmesan cheese which had dropped 70% in magnesium but retained identical iron levels to its 1940 content. For some reason, no-one seemed to spot that Parmesan is hand crafted by artisans in Italy while Stilton and Cheddar are industrially produced in giant factories in Britain. 

The director of the Food Commission, Dr Tim Lobstein, interviewed by the Guardian, said: One of the key arguments is that today’s agriculture doesn’t allow the soil to enrich itself, but depends on chemical fertilisers that don’t replace the wide variety of nutrients that plants and humans need. Newcastle University researchers said that the faster grass grows, the less trace elements are taken up. 

If you add in that grass now makes up a higher proportion of the pasture mix on more intensive farms, compared with the traditional, impoverished clover and wildflower rich but slow growing sward on our marginal clay culm pastures, it’s hardly surprising that commercial animals aren’t getting as much mineral in their diet. But meat from our home grown fertiliser-free Hornies should be fine.


As a footnote to the story, the Dairy Council, in an inspired piece of crisis management, said: It’s more likely that the differences are due to improvements in analytical methods used to measure minerals in milk.

All of which should, but doesn’t, help us sell our Exmoor Horns at a fat profit. Or their lamb joints. Or mutton. What’s the future of sheep in smallholding? I can’t tell you. There probably isn’t any money in it at the scale we’re farming, and the increasing regulations certainly don’t help, but actually, I wouldn’t change the life for anything.


This article is from the September 2006 issue of Country Smallholding magazine.

<< To order back issues click the link to the left.


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