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The Buckland flock, owned by Miriam Parker of Shrewsbury, Shropshire, has been recognised by AHDB Beef and Lamb as the Most Improved Flock of Southdown sheep in England for 2015.

The award is presented by the AHDB Beef and Lamb Better Returns Programme (BRP) to the recorded flock that has shown the greatest genetic gain for commercial characteristics over a 12-month period. There is a separate award for each of ten UK breeds.

Miriam Parker, and her partner Tim Green, started their Southdown flock in 1994 and at the time the breed was listed as “critical” on the Rare Breeds Survival Trust Watchlist. Starting small with only six ewes and a ram they wanted to support a breed where they felt they could make a difference. They both work fulltime, Miriam is an internationally renowned expert on animal behaviour and Tim works as an agricultural technical director, therefore breeding sheep with easy care attributes was essential.

The Southdown as a breed suited their system, doing well on limited grazing of traditional sward. Being a hardy ewe, with a modest mature size she is easy to manage from maintenance through to lambing. Through pre-planning, they have developed a very easy, stress free system.

 Promoting British breeding

Miriam has been careful to select essentially British breeding using performance recording as a tool to improve the genetics available, whilst maintaining the attributes of the breed.

Moving to their 18 acre small holding in 2000 they have gradually increased to 30 breeding ewes. Since 1994 they have seen the Southdown move from critical status to now, no longer being linked to the Rare Breed Watchlist, as it enjoys renewed popularity whilst competing in the modern market.

 “Southdown’s produce fantastic meat and wool, and consistently provide 1.5 lambs each year. The lambs are a nice size with fantastic vigour,” added Miriam.

“Customers find the rams ideal for use on ewe lambs or to produce lamb for the export market.”

Local demand encouraging the need for performance recording

Surplus lambs were sold successfully through her own box scheme lamb, using a local abattoir. Seeing the carcasses hung up the butcher’s shop, Mr Thomas of D & J Thomas & Sons, commented on their quality and since then has sold Southdown sired lamb through his shop. He actively promotes the use of Miriam’s Southdown rams as a terminal sire for other local commercial flocks.

“It is a win-win scenario, I clear my surplus lambs, producers are happy as lambs grow well off very little input, and they have a guaranteed outlet through the butcher’s shop,” said Miriam.

 Miriam started performance recording the flock in 2011, thus providing rams ranked by index with information on specific breeding traits. Miriam promotes a blend of growth and maternal traits, and uses the figures to influence her breeding strategy. She finds it a useful tool to identify good traits within certain lines of sheep.

The Buckland flock is synchronised to lamb in January, during this time Miriam can provide maximum supervision with minimum interference. Body condition scoring is vital to ensure the correct level of nutrition in the ewes. With her scientific background, Miriam is a keen recorder and analyses results thoroughly to modify management accordingly.

“Ultrasound backfat scanning is useful as it hides nothing,” said Miriam.

“It helps to take the age factor out of the equation when comparing lambs and can identify those who are performing particularly well or falling behind.”

Selecting breeding stock as replacements or rams for breeding

There is a strict culling policy and female replacements are selected from the top third. Miriam pays attention to the Southdown breed type, index (with attention to the maternal traits), and the breeding line history on both sire and dam. Generally the flock promotes longevity and this is clear within particular breeding lines.

A select few ram lambs are kept and run over the first winter , the pair watch how they develop.

“My philosophy is to focus on stock that I would use in my own flock, nothing substandard is sold for breeding,” Miriam added.

“Females are sold to customers ranging from starter flocks to pedigree breeders. Commercial producers have come to buy a ram and decided to invest in a few females as well or vice versa.

“I do not advertise and have no website but receive plenty of interest through word of mouth and reputation.”

In order to help their index improve they recently purchased some higher index rams from Patrick Goldsworthy to boost muscle depth whilst retaining the family line. Being a relatively small group of recorded breeders it is not always an option to buy in a ram with figures behind him, she makes informed decisions ensuring a sound history behind each newcomer.

Sales direct from the farm gate:

Miriam encourages farm sales for both pedigree and commercial customers.

“Through selling off the farm I am able to get a good grasp on what each customer wants and direct them toward the type of sheep that will achieve that goal for them. They appreciate seeing the family lines and reviewing the different types,” said Miriam.

Miriam regularly attends local shows and several successes in the butchers lambs classes proves the commercial success of the breed, and sparks interest with potential new buyers.

“It is vitally important that breeders continue to show these animals to ensure maximum exposure of the Southdown, and continue to promote the breed.

“Coming from the rare breed arena when we first started, people were not familiar with the Southdown and didn’t recognise it,” Miriam said.

“The Southdown now has a huge opportunity as a terminal sire. It is a great achievement of the breed to be able to boast Championships in shows such as the Royal Welsh! The recent success of the breed speaks volumes,” she was delighted to say.

Commenting on the win, Signet Breeding Services Manager Sam Boon said: “Rates of genetic improvement in Signet recorded flocks are at an all-time high. The difference between the best high EBV breeding stock and average animals is increasing year on year.

“This means commercial producers have more to gain when investing in rams with superior genetics. Pedigree breeders can capitalise on these differences too and this is exactly what Miriam has done. The improvement in the genetic merit of her flock is clear and she is to be congratulated on her achievement.”