The 2016 winner of the AHDB Beef & Lamb Better Returns Programme Improved Flock Award for Dorset sheep is the Gortleigh flock of Devon, owned by Gill and Richard Trace. This award is presented to the English Signet performance recorded flock that makes the greatest improvement in the breeding potential of the lamb crop during the year.
The AHDB BRP aims to highlight the financial impact that improved breeding and better lamb selection strategies can have on commercial flock profitability.
This award seeks to reward those breeders that are using Estimated Breeding Values to enhance the performance of their flocks and assist them to promote their achievement. The impact of performance recorded stock is significant and is increasing every year because of the activities of progressive farmers.
The Gortleigh flock of Poll Dorsets was established in 1986 in North West Devon and has been performance recording ever since, producing up to 500 lambs per year. The flock has additionally been a member of the Centurion Poll Dorset Breeders Group since 1997, and is pro-actively managed using Estimated Breeding Values to select for maternal traits as well as terminal traits. The flock was originally lambed in September and the original selection pressure placed considerable emphasis on early season lambing ability and twinning. However, in the mid-1990s 85 acres of the farm’s best land was planted to commercial cider orchards in a major farm business diversification. These orchards have now reached their full cropping potential of 1000-1500 t of cider apples per year, so the labour demand of this autumn harvest means that the sheep are now lambed from 25th November each year. Lambing takes place indoors due to the time of year and a high risk of bird predation of lambs born outside. In a normal year the ewes and lambs are turned onto the clean grazing of the orchards when the lambs are strong, and this is normally beneficial to both the sheep and the orchard. However, this has not been possible this year due to the persistent rain and waterlogged soils as the risk of soil compaction has been too great.
The flock runs some heavy clay permanent rushy Culm grassland typical of the area and other permanent grassland, much of the latter prone to flooding by the River Torridge. Clover has been encouraged in the better fields, and no fertiliser is used on the grassland. High dry matter big bale silage is made to feed indoor ewes or supplementary feed outside.
The Traces breed for good maternal traits of high lambing percentage and milking ability and select for muscling which results in robust ewes with good conformation. Most of the rams currently influencing the flock are homebred but top quality rams are also bought in.
Gortleigh Winner is the second highest rated stock ram for the breed in 2016 with an index of 496. His sire Gortleigh Thickset has been a significant influence, also siring Gortleigh Unit (index 409). Other influential rams include Gortleigh T Rex (index 403) and the pictured Gortleigh Pacman who has an index of 398 and high EBVs for muscling and growth.
Gill and Richard sell most of their shearling rams and shearling females from the farm to commercial farmers, as well as fat lambs sold primarily March- May. Notable rams that have gone to other breeders include Gortleigh Hastings and Gortleigh Ulysses.
The Traces aim for steady progress with their breeding programme and this has paid off, both with the current award and with the publication of last year’s Decade of Progress report which ranked the Gortleigh flock top for genetic gain in maternal traits over the preceding ten years.