Wiltshire Horn breeders Nick and Jane Ashwin, farm at Orchard Farm, Pilning, near Bristol.
In 1991 they bought an entire flock of Wiltshire Horns with three rams and 100 ewes with lambs at foot. They were attracted to the breed’s reputation for easy lambing and wool-shedding abilities.
“We were also looking for a breed to cross with the commercial ewes to make them easier to manage” says Nick. “Our Wiltshire rams produce a naturally shedding cross so we don’t have to shear, which saves us time and money.” They now have a commercial flock of 400 Wiltshire cross ewes, as well as the pedigree flock of 100 Wiltshire Horn ewes.
They had always bought recorded rams of terminal sire breeds for the commercial flock, but found it difficult to find recorded Wiltshire rams. So they decided to start recording with Signet in 2002. Recording has improved flock performance, particularly in terms of growth rates and muscling. Around 12 Wiltshire Horn breeders, including the Ashwins, now performance record their pedigree flocks.
The rams are turned out with the pedigree ewes at the end of October. The ewes remain out at grass, supplemented with hay or silage if necessary. Most are then housed in March to give the pasture a rest before lambing in April / early May. If the weather is kind and grass available then lambing outside is preferred to keeping them housed.
All the pedigree sheep are on a grass-based diet with no supplementary creep feeding. They graze the same block of unimproved pasture every year which is unsuitable for cattle. Any poorly performing pedigree ewes are culled, or if young, join the commercial flock.
Pedigree lambs are ultrasound scanned and weighed at approximately 20 weeks of age to accurately assess their muscle and fat depth. The Ashwins have been scanning for eight years and find this helps to demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of the rams. Ram lambs that are to be sold for breeding are also reared naturally and marketed as shearlings.
Nick attends a selection day with the Wiltshire Horn Sheep Performance Recording Group each year, where two to four rams are put forward for use by the members. Breed type and Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs) for attributes such as muscle depth and growth rate are taken into account. Maternal trait EBVs are also considered. The ram with the most votes can be used by the group, on a maximum of 20 ewes.
The Ashwins keep around ten shearling rams each year, selling to pedigree and commercial breeders off farm, through sales and through the Wiltshire Horn Society website. Those not making the grade are taken through to slaughter.
“Most of the breeding stock is sold in its working clothes directly from the farm,” says Nick. “Most commercial producers are now interested in the figures behind an animal. We hope to encourage more Wiltshire Horn breeders to join us in recording their flocks.
“Having EBVs gives breeders an edge. This, together with the easy lambing and wool shedding traits, makes our Wiltshires a good choice for commercial farmers.”
Shane Conway – Signet