The Borough Farm flock number 700 breeding ewes plus their 900 lambs. In addition there are 140 ‘shearling ewes’ these are last years ewe lambs (female lambs) that will enter the breeding flock in September and produce their first lambs the at the age of 2 years old
The flock grazes over 160 acres of Borough farm, plus 260 acres of coastal ground rented from the National Trust, around the village of Mortehoe.
The quality of grazing along the coast of North Devon is notoriously poor, although there is plenty of grass through the spring, the thin soil means that the grass can ‘burn’ during a dry summer. In addition the ground is deficient in some key minerals, which can hold back the growth of lambs.
This type of grazing influences the breed of sheep that we keep, and over the past six years the flock has changed to become entirely made up of Romney ewes. Although this breed originated from the Romney marsh in Kent it is the most widespread sheep in the world, common in South Africa, the Falkland isles, and Australia. In New Zealand much of the sheep industry was built around the Romney.
The real benefit of the Romneys is their ability to thrive on poor grazing and in some exposed and harsh conditions, on the cliffs of Mortehoe it is these qualities that are of most importance.
However from a farming point of view the down side of the Romney is that they are less prolific (they produce fewer lambs) than other breeds. However, through careful selection of replacement ewe- lambs, we hope to increase the number of lambs born each year. Many of the important traits of a sheep are hereditary, a ewe that has difficulty in lambing is far more likely to produce off spring with similar difficulties. Similarly the number lambs born to a ewe and the quantity of milk that she produces can also be traced back to her parentage.
Other attributes of a sheep are environmental. An animal born and bred on the farm will have an immunity to many of the bugs and infections that are present there, Since we have ‘closed’ the Borough farm flock (stopped buying in replacement sheep) We have seen a marked reduction of problems such as Foot infections, Orf, Mastitus, Contagious abortion, Watery mouth and Joint ill in the lambs.
The ewes lamb (give birth) during March and early April. If the weather is fine the flock lambs in the fields around the farm. In wet and cold weather there is enough space to house most of the flock in a large barn. Soon after birth suitable breeding ewe-lambs, born one of twins to a ewe who has had no lambing difficulties and had plenty of milk, are identified with an ear notch in the ear.
Although the sale of lambs is the main output from a sheep flock, each year the sheep need to be shorn. In Devon most of the shearing is completed in May and June. It’s a highly skilled and back breaking job, but one that is vital for the welfare of the sheep. Not only do sheep become overheated if they are not shorn, the are also attacked by blow flies. These flies lay their eggs in the wool, the lavae or maggots that then hatch begin to eat into the skin of the sheep with devastating results. Preventing blowfly ‘strike’ on the sheep flock is one of the biggest tasks for a shepherd over the summer
For hundreds of years wool was a highly valued commodity, with many towns around the country built on the wool trade. In the first half of the last century many North Devon farms were bought on the proceeds of a few years wool crop, saved and sold at a premium time. However, with clothing now mainly made from man made fibres the value of wool has slumped. Contract shearers will charge around £1.00 to shear a sheep, while the value of the fleece is around £1-20.
With the priority being in lamb production the lambs are weaned away from the ewes in the middle of July. By this stage the lambs have no need of the ewes and have become competitors for the same grass. The lambs are moved to the best grass on the farm, where as the ewes are quite capable of maintaining their condition on the sparsest of grazing. Once again the lack of quality of grazing on the north Devon coast is a factor here, and even on the best grass the lambs are susceptible to the lack of important trace elements, Selenium and Cobalt available in the grass. So at weaning the lambs are wormed and treated with Selenium and cobalt bolus, which lodges in the sheep’s stomach and releases the required elements over several months.