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The Raburn flock, owned by Joe and Rachel Henry of Thropton, Northumberland, has been recognised by AHDB Beef and Lamb as the Most Improved Flock of Hampshire Down sheep in England for 2014.

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.

With views south to the Simonside hills, west up the Coquet valley and north to the Cheviots Joe and Rachel, with their family of three children, have a small farm with extra land rented locally, 160 acres of severely disadvantaged land in total. Through rotational grazing the grassland quality has improved naturally over time.

Joe works for a mixed animal veterinary practice for 90 per cent of his time, with a focus on beef and sheep. Rachel manages the daily running of the farm and family; her vegetable patch provides almost all their own fruit and vegetables for the year. They are helped by Sam Donkin, a retired shepherd, who oversees the stock (including lambing the Hampshires outside) on the rented land furthest from Joe and Rachel’s home.

Supporting low input, high output systems of Native Breeds

Joe has a long-standing interest in farming livestock and from his science background. He was encouraged by the progressive nature of the Hampshire Down Breed Society with its high proportion of performance recording members actively involved. He felt, as a breed, the Hampshire Down were making progress with their carcase traits and furthermore they seemed to do it off forage.

In 2003 they went to part disposal of the Westland flock and from that purchased their foundation three ewes. A couple of years later they bought a few more draft ewes from Chris Westlake along with a tup so they could begin to breed their own replacements.

“The Hampshire Down, being a native breed, is designed to cope with our climate and outdoors is a natural way of rearing them,” Joe said.

“They produce small, hardy lambs which grow like mushrooms, and are capable of producing quality meat, with one of the biggest eye muscles (lamb chop) of all sheep.

“Finally, we really like the look of them! The judges at local, Glendale show agree, as Hampshire’s are reining champions of any other native breed,” he comments.

Joe and Rachel have always recorded with Signet, adding ultrasound scanning measurements a few years ago to increase accuracy.

They now keep 220 breeding ewes and 90 cattle and with no access to buildings their livestock live out all year. There are 35 pedigree Hampshire Downs, the rest of the sheep are New Zealand Romneys , Romney x Lleyns, and purebred Lleyns Through breeding their own replacements they aim to expand to a total of 50 Hampshire ewes in time.

 Their suckler herd of 30 Luing cows, another Native Breed, have good fleshing and beef qualities with a calm but hardy nature. Like the sheep, their cows also live outside all year, overwintering on standing hay with grass silage supplements later.

Combining a blend of New Zealand with British Genetics

The Raburn flock starts lambing outdoors from mid April. They aim for a forage based system and continue to provide enough grass over winter to avoid feeding any concentrate pre-lambing.

They have used a lot of New Zealand blood, purchasing Owslebury Xavier from Chris Westlake. He has left a lot of good females in the flock. They also bought a tup from Chris Hodgkins, benefitting from his consignment of New Zealand embryos a few years ago; they have developed into sheep with loads of length. To compliment these genetics, Joe and Rachel bought a British tup from the Thorbeck flock because they were attracted by his exceptionally high gigot score.

“A very important attribute is ease of lambing,” said Joe.

“Like us, most of our commercial tup buyers also lamb outside at grass, so it is essential that sheep lamb easily and lambs display good vigour.”

All Raburn ewes have New Zealand blood in them to some extent. Though sourced from recorded flocks, the New Zealand recording system is not recognised by Signet. They are prepared for this and happy to wait for indices to climb over time. As linkages develop they will benefit from the New Zealand genetics available.

Two years ago Joe and Rachel bought a British tup from David Smith of the Kelsey flock. Since then clear progress is being made, his breeding values are well linked through the Signet sheep breeder system. In the background, the New Zealand ram figures are starting to improve as they become known in the system.

Making selections to continue to build the flock and progress the breed

Any female requiring significant assistance at lambing is removed from the flock, and as lambs approach 18 weeks of age they are reviewed and anything not performing well is removed. Their objective is to promote well conformed lambs that continue to grow well, without any trouble. Animals retained for breeding combine breed type with presence and have good breeding values behind them. Sheep with good figures that do not perform or look the part are culled.

At tupping they put a New Zealand Ram onto ewes with British genetics and vice versa, anything that hasn’t conceived after 30 days is culled, with the majority of their lambing completed by early May.

They keep track of dag scores on lambs, and use Faecal Egg Counting as a guide to forecast the need for treatment. By keeping track of poor fertility, the need for lamb interference and bad feet, they try to eradicate such incidence from the flock. Lambs are weaned in August soon after clipping.

 Marketing their produce

To date buyers have been mainly commercial but in the last 12 months pedigree has risen and they are building relations with commercial repeat buyers. They sell their rams at 18 months of age to many commercial outdoor lamb producers.

“The Hampshire Down Society runs a “National Commercial Flock of the Year Award”, Simon Bainbridge and Duncan Nelles won this award respectively over the past two years, both of whom have used Raburn rams in their flocks,” Joe stated proudly.

“Raburn rams don’t melt away and are sold ready for work, and settle quickly into their new environment.

“Their offspring thrive quickly, and grow to finish well from grassland systems.”

Joe and Rachel sell direct from farm and rely on word of mouth. Through his job, Joe talks to some 300 farmers which has its benefits! They promote their stock through the breed society website and find this to be a useful advertisement to promote the breed.

At Raburn all their Romney ewes are put to a Hampshire Down ram. Occasionally draft Hampshire females may be sold through Carlisle, to support the market. Their intention is to run an on farm shearling sale this year, on 14 August, all previous tup buyers will be contacted and invited, giving them equal opportunity to source their best genetics.

They support their local Glendale show, where a handful of Hampshire Down breeders congregate.

“It is a fun lively event and a good opportunity to put Hampshire Downs on the map,” said Joe.

“When we started breeding Hampshire’s we were the most Northern farm keeping the breed, our local show wasn’t accustomed to seeing the breed and didn’t consider them seriously. Now it is clear to see progress is being made with more and more people taking an interest in them.

 “At Raburn we will continue to breed more efficient sheep, promoting less input for more output to keep moving the breed forward. The award this year was a surprise and is probably as a result of culling out ewes that were falling behind and better connectivity with the new Kelsey tup..

“To counter balance an animal with lower figures but good breed type we will combine with a very high index in order to retain their strong points and encourage figures to improve in their progeny.

“Perhaps this award is evidence that this strategy is working!” Joe 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 Joe and Rachel have done. The improvement in the genetic merit of their flock is clear and they are to be congratulated on their achievement.”