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Lleyn AubreyPeregrine Aubrey’s flock of Lleyns based in Kingsbridge, Devon has been recognised by AHDB Beef and Lamb as the Most Improved Flock of Lleyn sheep in England for 2015.

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

Peregrine has been farming at Eastergrounds Farm since 1986, where he originally kept a flock of 150 commercial sheep, a suckler beef herd and grew corn. All three were small scale enterprises and the main target was to optimise headage payments. In 2005, when they changed to an acreage system a major decision was made.

“This is when I decided to specialise in sheep, giving me the opportunity to do one enterprise to the highest standard rather than jack of all trades for three,” Peregrine explained.

“I sold all the beef and reduced the corn acreage, focusing on grass instead and now have grassland ranging from permanent pasture to relatively young leys on our hilly, lowland farm.”

Around 1998 Peregrine had started to introduce Lleyn genetics to the flock. The Lleyn is a high performing lowland ewe that is resilient and thrifty with easy-care attributes, whilst being highly productive.

Initially he bought some registered pedigree ewes from flocks such as Nick Tavenor, Dewi Ellis, and Edward Collins. He then bred his own replacements to increase his numbers gradually.

Since concentrating on sheep production he has established his own New Zealand Suffolk flock, and now has 50 ewes that run alongside his pure Lleyn’s. All sheep on the farm are managed and recorded on a commercial basis. Of the 700 Lleyns, the bottom tier are crossed to a New Zealand Suffolk to produce males for prime lamb, while the females sell well as crossbred commercial breeders.

 Turning to performance recording to develop own lamb production

Whilst building sheep numbers, Peregrine started recording manually on paper to identify which ewes were performing well and ensure those ewes were retained, culling out the troublemakers.

“This was clearly only playing with sheep improvement. In order to gain knowledge of the sheep you are producing you have to record individual performance in far greater depth and have the ability to analyse the data in a more sophisticated manner,” he said.

“In 2009 when I saw that compulsory sheep Electronic Identification (EID) was on the horizon I started recording more formally and invested in a software package. I like the ability to ask the database questions in order to develop my system and analyse my data. The service provider is excellent and an efficient computer programme has now become an essential part of any breeding venture.”

Peregrine, an enthusiast of the New Zealand lamb production system, is consciously promoting his own recorded stock reared from a forage based diet.

“New Zealand is breeding sheep with genetics that seem to make a difference in any system they are introduced to.

“It is important to realise that breeding better sheep should be done with the mind not the heart or eye, and should always focus on the needs of the end user i.e. the commercial sheep farmer,” he said.

He has invested in equipment to aid time efficiency so that he can now sort whilst handling by any data criteria. To Peregrine it was obvious that this path was a facilitator to Signet data recording and evaluation, which he started in 2011, providing a significant amount of back data.

“Since then it has been my major goal to sell pure unrecorded Lleyn breeding stock of high genetic merit, in both performance and practical management, at competitive prices to the commercial sheep sector. Improved Lleyn is my only sales pitch,” he said.

Focusing on Individual Breeding Values

Studying the eight week and 21 week weights alongside maternal values and faecal egg counts with interest, Peregrine’s focus is on mature size and increased muscle thickness.

“Through the use of ultrasound scanning I can identify that animals are getting more muscular; an advantage providing it doesn’t increase lambing difficulties. The easy care attributes are essential and must be maintained alongside improved performance,” he confirmed.

“With positive correlation for lamb growth rate and mature size, I think it is imperative to maintain the overall efficiency of the ewe.”

 Management of the flock and targeting sales

Using single sire natural mating groups his Lleyn’s achieve an average conception rate of 2.00, lambing indoors from March, with ewe lambs following the main group in April. All ewe lambs retained are put to the ram, anything not pregnant as a shearling is culled.

Using a colour coded system prior to lambing he can easily detect the higher ranked sheep and can confirm that they appear to present fewer issues at lambing.

“It would seem possible that the data picks up some positive practical attributes.”

Ram lambs are only left entire from the best figured sheep; everything else is castrated at birth. Female replacements are selected from middle to high ranking sheep.

Lambs are weaned at 14 weeks of age and surplus lambs are sold deadweight by October, saving the grass for the ewes. Peregrine finds he continues to select bigger, heavier lambs quicker and puts this down to both genetics and improved management.

 His main objective is to sell both males and females to commercial producers for reasonable prices, making sure that there is always superior value for money. Keeping records of past sheep sales, he uses Signet information combined with computer software tools to check he can offer non-related rams to the same customers, or rams to customers who have purchased breeding females.

Animals are all sold privately off the farm. In order to reach out to more people, Peregrine is in the process of developing his own website.

He has a high turnover of stock rams, using newcomers on plenty of ewes in their first season. If figures start to decrease he doesn’t use them again, but understanding the reasons behind the figures and what makes them shift is a constant battle.

It is hoped that using homebred rams may reduce the chances of their EBVs dropping, but this does nothing to enhance genetic variation. In 2013 he bought four new rams in, two did well under Signet evaluation so Peregrine kept some of their male progeny. Last season he used the nine best homebred rams, and is constantly on the lookout for fresh blood.

“Keeping the flock young with a high number of female replacements aids genetic improvement. Equally anything that is performing under par in a practical way, regardless of EBV, is culled,” Peregrine said.

“A few original ewes have gained high EBVs despite being from unknown parentage.

“The animals that do well in your local environment will take your program forward, these individuals need to be identified in any breeding program. I believe this can only be done through high level cross flock statistical analyses,” he concludes.

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 Peregrine has done. The improvement in the genetic merit of his flock is clear and he is to be congratulated on his achievement.”