In Conversation with Dale & Meg Walters
1. Where in the UK is your farm is and what breed of sheep do you farm?
We’re Dale and Meg Walters and we manage an organic estate in Leicestershire. We farm pedigree Lleyn Sheep here in the lush Welland Valley.
2. How long have you or your family been involved in farming? What incentivised you to get involved?
I’ve always had some connection with farming, my uncle farms in Yorkshire and I’ve always studied or worked in and around agriculture, but Dale came late to the farming party, starting as a farm apprentice 12 years ago and working his way up to becoming farm manager on various farms. Dale has always loved livestock and the physical, outdoor nature of the work, and coupled with my obsession with animal welfare and conservation, we made it happen. It’s been a hard slog but worth it.
3. What does an average day look like for a sheep farmer and what are some of the responsibilities?
The day always starts with a stock check. This involves driving or walking through every field making sure all the livestock are fit and well. Making a judgement call on grass growth and when to move flocks and herds to give both the animals and the pasture space to grow. This daily task takes 3-4hrs depending on the time of year. There are lots of animals to check! Once completed we might start fencing repairs or setting up electric fencing in the next field ready for a flock move. We might run the sheep into a pen to check their health, weight, or push them through a footbath to keep their feet healthy. We periodically run the older lambs in to weigh and grade them and split them into batches for selling or keeping. Every day is different and there’s always something to do. On the whole we like to leave them undisturbed to just get on and be sheep. Avoiding stress and keeping lots of good pasture in front of them is the most important aspect of any stockperson.
4. How many sheep are in your flock?
We currently have 850 breeding ewes, and the majority of this year’s lambs are still on the farm as we lamb late in spring, so there are over 2000 sheep on the farm at this time of year (October). Added to that are the rams or tups who are the breeding males. We currently have 18 of those.
5. What are the characteristics of the breed of sheep you farm, and do you ever name your sheep?!
Lleyn’s are a hardy native breed, originating from the Lleyn peninsular in Wales. The name is roughly pronounced ‘Clean’ or ‘Clin’ dependant on which farmer you’re talking to! The breed are quite large, prolific breeders, very maternal, very milky and lamb easily which makes them a perfect choice for organic farmers like us. They are reared on a 100% organic pasture diet, and they must be able to rear their lambs in this natural way without any grain. So, for us the breed is perfect. As an added bonus the wool is white and is a consistent quality.
6. What is your most memorable work moment as a sheep farmer?
Probably too many to mention but most sheep farmers will probably tell you that the satisfaction of delivering live lambs when they’ve been a tangled mess is always immensely satisfying, as is rescuing sheep from ridiculous predicaments. We pulled a lamb out of a river once…. It was fine, albeit soggy!
7. Is there anything you would like others to know about sheep farming? Perhaps there’s a misconception or something that’s overlooked?
There seems to be misunderstandings everywhere in farming. I think most consumers are too disconnected from the products they buy generally but particularly when it comes to livestock. Wool is produced by sheep every year; it grows like our hair does. We’ve been selectively breeding sheep for thousands of years for their wool. It is completely renewable, sustainable, and biodegradable and we have to shear our sheep every summer to keep them cool. It doesn’t hurt- it’s just a haircut! There seems to be an assumption that the sheep are somehow harmed by the shearing process. They are certainly not. You only have to see the way they leap and jump after they’ve been sheared to know that they find losing their woolly jackets extremely liberating.
8. In your opinion what does British wool farming stand for and why should we choose British wool?
Well, the nation was built on the back of the value of its wool. We have an extremely long pedigree of producing some of the best wool in the world, thanks to the variety of breeds and topography of the British Isles. Because the UK is a temperate country, i.e., our weather is generally warm and a bit wet (compared to the extremes further globally north and south) we can grow forage like grasses and clovers pretty much all year round. Combined with much of the UK not suitable for growing crops or vegetables, sheep provide fibre from some pretty difficult terrain- and it’s right on our doorstep! Why import a product that we have here in spades? So British wool is high quality, diverse, sustainable, and environmentally friendly. The question should really be: why WOULDN’T you choose British wool?!
9. What’s the most important month in the calendar for sheep farming? Is there a limited timeline for shearing wool? And if so, how does this effect the manufacture and quality of the wool?
There are lots of different timelines within sheep farming as many people choose to farm for slightly different reasons. However, the fundamentals are generally the same. In Autumn the tupping (breeding season) begins, and this is the start of the sheep farming year really. Breeding decisions made now will affect decisions about the flock for the next year. In Spring, lambing is the focus. New lives bouncing about in the grass. In summer the major event is shearing. From the end of May until August roughly, farmers up and down the country will be shearing or getting shearers in to shear their flocks. The timing is dictated by a few things; when the lambs were born, what the weather is like, the availability of the shearers and a dry few days so the fleeces can clipped off the sheep easily and then stored without spoiling.
I would say that for the majority of lowland sheep farmers, June/July is probably the peak for this, and later in the season the higher up or further north you go.
The critical thing is waiting for the grease to rise from the skin, if possible, this is the natural divide between last year’s wool and the new growth and allows the wool to be sheared easily from the sheep without clogging up or blunting the shears. This grease is lanolin and makes the sheep waterproof. It is washed from the wool by the processors and is then used in hand creams and cosmetics.
10. What contributes to the quality of the wool, i.e., lifestyle, feeding, weather, free roaming?
Wool quality is generally dictated by sheep breed. Some sheep produce very fine wool, suitable for clothes. Others produce wool better suited to carpets. They all have a niche. Living outdoors means most sheep won’t have much contamination in the fleece like bits of straw. A good diet and reducing metabolic stress are all key to wool quality. An animal that has gone through a stressful event or has had a dietary upset caused by worms or a sudden diet change or flock can get ‘wool break’ where the fibre is weakened and will break away from the fleece. This is obviously undesirable from a wool perspective, but also from a welfare perspective. So, I guess you could say that happy sheep have better wool!
11. How has British wool farming evolved over the last ten years and what effect has this had on the end product? How you compete with wool imports from overseas?
The more farmers I talk to, the more are convinced that sheep breeding decisions that incorporate sheep that naturally lose their wool without being sheared are the answer to bringing the cost of sheep keeping down. This is terribly sad. One of the most versatile, ecologically, and environmentally sound fibres in the world is being rubbed off on fences and bushes because people would rather wear a by-product of the oil industry than support this amazing product. Wool imports have been an issue for years. New Zealand, famous for its quality wool, has a vice-like grip on the industry and this is down to their excellent marketing strategies and economies of scale. I can’t fault them for consistency of message and product. But we have wool to match and equal that! We just need to educate people and make it more available. Most of our wool is sent to China, and some makes it back after processing. We used to have the industry here to process our own wool. Without a return to that, we will continue to see the value of our wonderful wool being absorbed by businesses in other countries.
12. What's one of the most challenging lessons you've learned as a farmer?
That the basic farming knowledge that we and everyone in this wonderful industry take for granted, does not filter through to the general public. It seems ill-informed celebrities have more influence over the public than an entire industry does. And that’s very hard to take.
13. What do you think the factors are in farming that can affect the mental health of those who work in the industry?
As I mentioned above, being incorrectly portrayed in the media, both mainstream and social, as being somehow cruel or greedy, or single-handedly responsible for climate change can massively affect your mental health. It can be a very lonely job. Working long hours, often battling the weather, to make little or no money and then being accused of all of the above can be too much for some people. There is a reason we have the highest suicide rate of any profession. Hats off to RABI and others like them. They shine a light in the dark for farmers at their lowest ebb.
14. What does fair production and transparency mean to British wool farmers?
A chance to be really proud of this amazing product, and to make it pay! I don’t think farmers are expecting to get rich producing wool anytime soon, but to cover the costs of its production would mean so much to so many farmers. Wool is amazing stuff, produced with care to some of the highest standards in the world. That should be reflected at every stage of processing and apply to the finished garment too.
15. Let’s talk sustainability! The buzzword in farming right now its carbon neutral farming, how has this affected you?
It certainly is and is making many of us very uneasy. Wool is certainly sustainable- no argument. The sheep live their lives happy outside, they grow wool continuously, we shear them, they regrow it… very few inputs and a wonderful product. I can see that its production is certainly carbon-neutral from a farmer’s point of view as long as the sheep’s environment is also managed sensitively as the important habitat that it is. In fact, there are ongoing studies that are starting to show that carefully managed pasture can act as a carbon sink- so could wool become carbon negative?! At point of shearing, probably. I think wool’s ability to completely break down and not release microplastics is one of its greatest selling points.
However, city investment firms are already contacting farms like ours, offering to pay to plant trees on the land in return for carbon credits…. Allowing them to continue their environmentally unsustainable business models as normal, whilst telling their investors they’re carbon neutral….and that is shaky ground indeed!