Standing by your lamb
- Credit: Su Anderson
March 1 marks the traditional start of lambing at Bridge Farm, based at Chelsworth, near Stowmarket.
It’s a busy time, with staff putting in 12-hour shifts and working through the night to see the lambs are safely delivered.
The business is owned by James Buckle and his family, and is managed by veteran stockman Michael Mumford, who has worked there for two decades.
Michael has firm views about seasonal, local produce, and he and Arthur Diaper, owner of Jackson Meats, based at Haughley New Street, have worked hard to establish a premium lamb brand, Nedging Lamb, over the last four or five years.
They want to prove that locally-reared premium lamb has its place alongside other high quality, high welfare local meat brands, in particular, premium Suffolk chicken brand Sutton Hoo Chicken, another business that Arthur works with, and Blythburgh Free Range Pork.
Michael, who keeps around 1,200 ewes, became disillusioned with the idea of animals being bulk-transported long distances and wanted to find a means for them to be slaughtered, processed and sold into more local markets.
“We didn’t want the lambs on a truck and send them to the other side of the country to the supermarkets. We have got no control, taste, you name it; we just didn’t like it at all,” he explains. “Plus it’s the financial side.”
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This is critical, as sheep farmers, in common with other livestock and arable farmers, have been under huge pressure as commodity prices plummet. The worst point was last year when deadweight prices fell to about £3/kg although they have since started to recover. Michael needs to make £4/kg just to break even.
Michael strongly believes that lamb is best enjoyed as a seasonal meat, and his lambs won’t be ready for the market until at the earliest around May. The key sale months are June, July and August.
The flock is “tupped” or mated in the autumn around September/October and later on, the pregnant ewes are separated according to the numbers of lambs they are carrying (singles, twins or triplets) and due dates – the gestation period is 20 weeks.
After the lambs arrive over a period of weeks in March, the ewes are taken into separate pens. There they can be paired up with “orphans” or “extra” lambs in order to distribute them more evenly, in pairs, across the flock, ensuring the youngsters have access to enough milk to thrive. They’ll then be put into communal pens, and gradually moved outside.
This tight timetable means that the Nedging brand has limited availability, but Michael believes this is essential in terms of having a workable farming regime which is in tune with the seasons.
“That’s the natural and traditional way,” he says. “We sell locally and we give Arthur something the supermarket hasn’t got.”
His ewes overwinter inside, on straw, in purpose-built, modern sheds, where they will give birth. They and their lambs spend the summer months grazing in the Brett Valley around Chelsworth, Nedging and Semer on stewardship land covered in purple and white clover.
“I believe the lamb tastes of what it eats,” explains Michael.
Focusing on the local market means, he believes, better welfare for the animals who aren’t subjected to long journeys and stress. Instead they will go to local abattoirs, such as Blakes at Felthorpe in Norfolk, and are then processed at Jackson Meats.
Arthur says the key to the premium brands is ensuring the price reflects the extra effort and input that goes into them, and while he charges more, he also passes this back to the farmer.
“It should be almost like a fixed price,” he says. “Some butchers want to pay the price according to the market conditions but it’s wrong. They should be paying a price that allows the producer to make a profit.”
When it comes to selling the brand, many buyers “don’t take much prodding”, he says, as they like the meat, although some are purely price-led, he admits.
“We have got to try and change that,” he says. An annual visit to the farm in May, when buyers are taken on a tour to see the grazing sheep, has helped to cement their relationship with the farm, and their understanding of the high standard of the meat it produces, he adds.
“We are selling lambs all year round, but we try and prioritise and give preference to the Nedging Lamb from the end of May for that 16 week period,” he says.
Michael says he gets a lot of feedback from customers about the flavour of the meat. The lambs are bred specifically for the eating quality, he says. Scotch Mules are crossed with Texel and Charollais cross rams to produce the end product.
“I have always been proud to be a prime food producer and then to have it sold in our own villages. To have our neighbours eating it, it gives you a buzz.”