We have had the pleasure of working with Tara this year to use her wool in our Woolkeepers® traceable wool initiative
Read below to find out more about Tara and what happens on farm
How long have you been farming for?
My father Roscoe, who is now 65 years old, was born in the farm house and has farmed all his life; his grandmother (my great grandmother) bought the farm in 1946. I grew up on the farm too and have always been passionate about working with the sheep and seeing the wildlife around the farm, which my father encouraged. A few years after completing my Zoology degree I returned to work full time on the farm after a brief period travelling and working at Exmoor National Park as a conservation assistant.
Did you ever fancy doing something else…
Roscoe always wanted to stay on the farm. I knew I wanted to work with animals and the environment in some way and loved what I saw on the farm and would hate it to change. I love working with dad especially as we have similar views on the sheep and environment. I have always believed that farming and conservation needs to go hand in hand. By farming I feel I can help to keep a little bit of the land special.
Background on your farm ?
Castle Hill Farm is just over 200 acres of severely disadvantaged land. The farm history is quite varied, more recently being part of Chargot Estate and even going further back it was part of a designed landscape with various features; a prominent rounded cottage at the opposite end of the farm and church with a large lake in between. This lake now is a stream with a marsh around the bottom section supporting a variety of plant species, currently it is full of meadow sweet, marsh valerian, birds foot trefoil and my favourite ragged robin.
The upper section is now lined with disused ponds, which Roscoe’s father had put in when starting the fish farm. Now that we do less with the fish these ponds are surplus and left to encourage wildlife. Roscoe maintains the pond water depth so that the marsh orchids don’t dry out and together they have found nests of whitethoats, reed buntings, grey wagtails, willow warblers, piedwagtails, redstarts and kingfisher. I ring the chicks when it’s safe to do so without causing harm to the birds. The information gathered by ringing is then used by the British Trust for Ornithology scientific research and monitoring work. There is an open wood that gets grazed sensitively, where pearl bordered fritillaries were seen in the spring. Very nearly all the grassland is permanent pasture, with a few improved fields. All the hedges are on hedge banks and traditionally laid. Some of the fields maintain their medieval characteristics, irregularly shaped with mixed species in the hedges. Together we also record the moths on the farm, partly as a measure of the biodiversity.
What type of farming do you do ?
We have around 500 lambing ewes, half of which are pure bred Devon Closewools, and the rest are first crosses with a suffolk and second cross with a texel, breeding our own replacements. We buy about 20 Charolais cross store bullocks, which we fatten. We also rear a few thousand fish, various trout species, that will then go on to lakes and rivers for fishing. In the summer we do contract bailing and wrapping.
Do you have a focussed interest, i.e genetics, machinery, rare breeding, bio diversities…
We have two main interests.
We always had Devon Closewool sheep and it’s sad to see them lose popularity. In 1950 there were around 229,000 and now the Rare Breed Survival Trust has them listed as a minority breed because there are only 1,500-3,000 breeding ewes registered. This is made worse by most ewes being found geographically concentrated on Exmoor, meaning disease poses a potential risk to the breed. We have always recorded the breeding of our ewes and love the sheep.
Roscoe in particular has always had an interest in flora and fauna and really encouraged it where possible. There are fields that we don’t graze at certain times of the year or we wait until theyellow hay rattle has set seed before cutting. Roscoe has been doing this long before it was popular/actively encouraged.
How many sheep do you have and what breed types do you have?
Around 500 breeding ewes half being pure Devon Closewools, the rest being first cross Suffolk and second cross texel.
What do you enjoy about working with sheep?
They are all different with different personalities and characters, they can be so loving too. There is usually the odd stubborn one but a bit of food helps win them around! Throughout the year the work can be repetitive but only for a short while as it is always changing. Our lambing period lasts from the end of February till middle of March, and when that goes well it is really rewarding seeing new life. My favourite sound is that of the ewe murmuring to its new born lamb.
What is the great thing about your sheep ?
Although the Devon Closewool is a rare breed it is still a good commercial sheep and nice and hardy. They are a good size but can have a little too much fat for more modern tastes, but as a result they are really flavoursome. They lamb at about 1.5% and have high quality milk. From a personal point of view they are just a pleasant and calm breed. The fleece is about 4kg so makes shearing worthwhile but the wool isn’t so long that they are unmanageable. They are fairly placid and not great escape artists. You get to have a good relationship with them as they do well even into old age, we currently have three ewes born in 2009 who have all raised lambs successfully.
What is the hardest part in working with sheep?
I hate having to send them to market, but I make sure that they get the best care I am able to give whilst they are with me. The thing we both find hard is the amount of time sheep need; for instance at lambing neither of us can leave the farm unless it’s to the vets. So we both have missed things they would like to have attended such as family weddings and friend’s funerals. We are also both very grateful to their amazing shearers. Roscoe slipped a disk shearing when younger and I have a weak back so it’s one job they are really happy to have other people to do, without them they would struggle. Farming always has difficult days, and it can seem like you are firefighting, there is always something around the corner but the vets are amazing and have supported us to find ways forward when something new confronts them.
What type of land do they graze on and what is the movement of the flock throughout the year?
All of our land is classed as severely disadvantaged so not overly fertile, mostly permanent pasture. There are a few more improved fields which are cut for silage and used to wean the lambs on. There are quite a few rough grass areas and an open wood which is great for a variety of species. The sheep are housed late in the winter and lamb out by day, back in by night, this allows the ground to avoid being poached too badly and for us to keep an eye on the ewes when they lamb. They go out when the lambs are 2-7 days old, so able to escape potential fox attacks and the health of the ewes and lambs can be monitored easily.
How has animal husbandry changed over the past 10yrs?
Not much has changed, but it is a lot nicer to now be able to use a pain killer for the ewes.
How have you seen the farming practices change over the past 10yrs?
We now worm the sheep based on their fecal egg count rather than traditional timings or condition. This has resulted with less wormer being used and being able to use wormers more specifically for the parasite found.
Who works with you on the farm ?
Other family members occasionally help especially at lambing time when we also hire a night lamber. We also hire in for shearing and have help with the silage contract work. All the hedge laying is also done by a local contractor.
Can you recall any particular years when something happened on the farm ?
The summer of 2018 hit the ewes particularly hard. The grass just didn’t grow so fattening lambs and flushing the ewes was difficult, we cycled later and had a low lambing percentage. Heavy rainfall causes most trouble with the fish as the grills to the ponds block which can cause the fish to suffocate. The farm is increasingly having flash floods in the winter which have to be managed to prevent the ponds from flooding. The ewes do cope well although they look miserable but if it’s for an extended period then mud fever becomes an increasing risk. Roscoe remembers the winter of ‘63 with seven weeks of snow. It was before roads could be kept free of snow so helicopters landed carrying forage for the livestock and insulin that Roscoe’s father delivered to the neighbour with horses and sledges. Roscoe also remembers the summer of ‘75 when there was an extended drought. As a result the sheep had to be kept in two flocks along the stream as all other water sources had dried up. My father’s experience helps me settle in more recent weather extremes, although it seems that this is going to happen increasingly more often.
Can you explain “..a day in the life of…”
That’s difficult as it changes so much depending on the time of the year. At lambing time the working day is 13-15 hours, and the time left is spent sleeping or eating. It may not seem that bad but after several weeks of it being non-stop it is hard but the first few hours at the end of lambing where you can sit and just watch lambs play is bliss. When lambing, the ewes need almost constant surveillance to ensure that lambs don’t die in the sack, to pick up on ewes who may be having trouble, feeding and topping up lambs, feeding and bedding up ewes and making sure lambs get enough colostrum to protect them from disease. The jobs never end. Other times of the year it is a little less busy. Before shearing the summer poses the greatest risk for the ewes, we check them 2-3 times a day to prevent sheep from dying from being stuck on their backs. Checking the ewes late evening is one of my favourite jobs as it is so calm and peaceful as the sun sets. In the summer the weather can make it difficult and everyone needs to make sure they have enough forage to get them through the winter. Fitting everyone in can be difficult especially if there is unexpected rain or just a bad summer. Often it is a late night with an occasional day when one of us gets home as the sun rises, having started working in the tractor at 10pm. Throughout the year the ewes and lambs need maintenance, managing their grass so that there is enough, ensuring that they haven’t got maggots and monitoring their worm burden. There is always a job that needs to be done, and when it’s quiet it’s a chance to do the jobs that get left behind such as minor fence repairs.
What do you love about wool ?
Wool is a renewable resource which the ewe actually benefits from the farmer taking from them. If they didn’t sheep can easily die from being stuck on their backs or being infested with maggots. Using wool instead of plastic alternatives is also an easy, but undervalued, option.
How long does it take to shear your flock?
Usually it takes two shearers two days.
Have you ever used the wool yourself for anything, such as yarn or insulation?
We have a couple of friends that love to use it for needle felting.
What do you make of Brannach Olann becoming an ethical wool sourcing route for farmers?
Currently the price is better and quicker coming. Anything that helps a farm be profitable is good as it helps make it possible to invest or spend money on the ewes and their health and wellbeing. Anything that helps with the traceability of a product is brilliant. So many people have become disconnected with where their food is sourced and traceable produce can only help improve this. British farmers need support and being able to trace products helps ensure that the environment everyone loves to see is maintained and protected with the highest welfare.
Close the loop and find out what we made?
The Woolkeepers® initiative has captured both transparency and traceability in a unique wool assurance scheme which traces wool from farm gate to shop front. Our visibility within the supply chain ensures compliance with safety, sustainability and welfare requirements. Each time we process wool, we create a unique identifier which traces the batch back to farm, as well as forward to our customer.
This batch of wool went to a rural retailer bases in the heart of England to make home interior products.