With 40,000 sheep farmers in the UK and over 60 different pure breeds roaming our British hills, it’s easy to assume that sheep farming goes without uncertainties. But with agricultural patterns constantly evolving, one farmer, whose family have lived and worked on the same farm for five generations, tells us what it’s really like to be a sheep farmer in 2021.
There is an art to being a sheep farmer, which is to say that being part of one of Britain’s oldest traditions is not a position achieved purely by ushering a herd all day. No, sheep farming or sheep husbandry as its also known, is a skill, one which has arguably gone unseen over the last decade. With a yield of nearly 22,000 tonnes of wool per year, Britain is one of the largest wool producers in the world. But the industry, whose stereotypes impede common discourse, is facing a crossroad of insecurity. The statistics are telling, with wool prices falling from 60p per kg to 32p this year, exacerbated by the pandemic and the limits of Brexit.
However, the spotlight is firmly on the industry again as sustainability and circularity continues to be a priority in our worlds political agenda, but also a British business whose roots remain firmly in agriculture.
For Texel ewe farmer, Glenn Mortimer, whose farm resides in Glaisdale, a small village on the north Yorkshire Moors, farming is more than just an interest, it’s a generational tradition. “We live at New House Farm [in Glaisdale] and we are the 4th and 5th generation of our family to do so. My son Myles has recently left school and is working at home now. The incentive was helping and working alongside parents and grandparents enjoying the rewards of breeding sheep to the best of our abilities” says Glenn. For many like Glenn and his family, sheep farming is a source of pride, a lifelong pursuit which takes years of hard work to build a reputable herd. “The average day for a sheep farmer is always so very different” Glenn explains, “because work changes nearly every week. From turning tups in to lambing, weaning and sale days. The one thing is that sheep are very problematic and need checking and looking around just as often as you can”.
British sheep, whose characteristics range from firm dense fleece to naturally hardy, are a neglected heritage. With wool now commonly considered a by-product, often only small vignettes of British Wool remain on our soil versus abroad. Glenn and his son Myles keep Texel ewes, which are put to Texel and Beltex Rams. “In our flock we clip round about six hundred sheep. The characteristics of the Texel sheep we keep are white heads, long square sheep with a tight fleece. Miles has pedigree Beltex sheep and names them when he registers his lamb with the Beltex association.” But it is not merely the characteristics of the breed which contributes to the quality of wool produced. Sheep farming is a skill many of us are yet to understand, with each month of the year central to the fibres development. It is more than just a case of keeping the sheep alive.
“I think good husbandry is the most important thing for the quality of wool. If they [the sheep] are parasite free and in good body condition as soon as the weather becomes hot in mid June, they will naturally lift their fleece and soft wool between body and fleece will appear and then the sheep are ready and will shear with ease” Glenn says of the process. “Every month is important but it’s October for me. This is because ewes need to be in the right conditions for mating in November”.
But with the advancement of British wool farming over the last ten years, and falling prices since the introduction of synthetic fibres, the end product is often worthless for farmers like Glenn and his family. “British wool farming over the last ten years has become more about getting the fleece off the sheep for welfare reasons than a saleable product. Many farmers now burn or tip on manure heaps because of its low value” Glenn explains. “British wool in the public’s eye probably means a quality product that is home grown to a high standard or welfare, and it is. But to farmers it is phrase that sounds robbery”.
For Glenn, the most challenging lessons he’s learnt as a farmer is tackling the regulation of third parties. “We are always being directed different ways by subsidisers. Livestock farms cannot change overnight and it takes years to build up a herd or flock.” And, it’s not just general farm maintenance that farmers encounter on a daily basis, but a rising mental health crisis. Many factors of farming such as remoteness can affect the mental health of those who work in the industry. Glenn, who works with his son, says its low incomes which contribute to the struggle. “Usually [its] low incomes” Glenn declares. “Money is not everything but to sell your end product for a low price effects pride and wallet. Loneliness can be a real problem on remote farms but same again, a good price for what you have produced gets you up beat and ready for places.”
But it’s not all negative. Sheep farming is rightly a family institution, and with that comes a library of memorable moments. “The most memorable work with [our] sheep was September this year at Layburn Mont, where we won first and second place in the continental shearling show and sale achieving the top price!” With fair production and transparency at the forefront of headlines, to British wool farmers like the Mortimer’s this means “getting paid for a good product.” “There are no secrets or misconduct in wool production” explains Glenn, “only the price for a renewable product”.
Equally, carbon neutral farming, an industry buzzword which has overwhelmed the industry in recent months, remains ambiguous. The term, the effects of which are yet to reach farmers like Glenn, has surfaced under an umbrella of varying ideas. But for Glenn, “[Farming is the] same as old. [carbon neutral farming is] Another direction but not sure yet!”.