Andrea Hale, Millfields Rare Breeds, Essex
Owning and running a smallholding, had been a dream of mine since the age of 7, following a holiday to Cornwall where we stayed at a Farm B&B. I would be up at the crack of dawn to help the farmer with his animals; milking the cows, bottle feeding the lambs, feeding the ewes etc., etc, anything and everything I could get involved with – I LOVED IT! I particularly loved handling and feeding the lambs and dreamed of having my own sheep farm for years. I finally achieved that dream with the help of my husband Clive Hale.
I finally realised that dream, rather unexpectedly, at the age of 36. I had been trapped in the rat race of a high pressure job for many years and my rural dream had well and truly faded into the background. Then out of the blue, my husband suffered a heart attack and I was forced to leave my job to care for him while he recovered from a heart bypass. During this time we both re-evaluated our lives and decided things had to change. My husband was able to take early retirement and we were presented with the circumstances and opportunity to buy a piece of land and change our lifestyles completely.
Clive and Tuppence relaxing
We found our land totally by accident, for sale by the vendor and with the rising excitement that my dream could actually come true, we put in an offer!! The offer was accepted and before we knew it we owned a quiet, secluded 9 acres in a quiet village in Essex. The land was already fenced with stock fencing and had been used for sheep before. It was as though it was meant to be. We have of course done a lot more fencing since to create various paddocks and have built shelters so the sheep can get out of bad weather when they need to. The land also came with a shell of a barn which we rebuilt to provide a hay store through the winter and a lambing barn in spring. Fencing and building is pretty much an ongoing job.
I had always been interested in the plight of rare breeds and so we checked out the RBST Watch List (Rare Breeds Survival Trust) and came across a breed of Sheep called Hebridean, which were in decline and of great concern. We found a small breeder and purchased a starter flock of five, 3 month old, ewe lambs. The day we released them into their new paddock was one of the happiest days of my life and I remember sitting and watching them for most of the day!
Breeding sheep is a continuous learning curve. Despite endless reading and research, I still learn new things each and every year. There is so much to learn: medications, vaccinations, treatments, ailments, daily care, feeding, worming, foot care, shearing, lambing, etc., etc., but I have always found that the most important thing is to know your animals well. Watch them, study them and get to know them as individuals so that you can spot changes in their behaviour and tackle problems early. Being a smallholder with only a small number of animals makes this close relationship possible and allows us to provide a higher level of care. It means we can spoil them rotten too!! We have 25 ewes now and I am proud to be able to know them all by name, their personality, characteristics, weaknesses and strengths. One of our ewes, Tilly absolutely loves crisp sandwiches and will happily share one with me at every opportunity!
We have been breeding Hebridean Sheep for a few years now and my love for Hebrideans grows each year. Their characters, intelligence, sturdiness and mothering instincts are just a few of the many reasons why this hardy breed is so wonderful to work with. Hebridean Sheep were listed on the Rare Breed Survival Trusts’ Watch list when we started breeding them but they have since become a real survival success story, coming OFF the watch list as many more breeders took on this wonderful breed!
Following this success we introduced a small flock of a critically endangered breed of sheep called Boreray, which we breed for livestock sale and conservation in the hope that we can contribute to a similar success. Boreray originate from the same group of Scottish islands as our Hebrideans and are very similar, although they can be far more flighty and require careful, gentle handling and a lot of patience.
We were very excited when BBC Countryfile asked to come and do a film about them to help raise awareness of the breed and encourage more breeders. One of our Boreray - Twix, perfectly demonstrated the breeds natural flightiness when she jumped over my shoulder during filming, much to the directors delight!
Andrea with Adam Henson
Both Hebridean and Boreray are fantastic breeds for beginners as they are very easy to bucket train and their horns make catching and handling far easier. They are also more resistant to fly strike, foot rot and many other ailments commonly seen in more commercial breeds. With patience and training they can become very friendly and trusting, which is incredibly rewarding. The ewes are also wonderful to work with at lambing time and seem to really appreciate your help if a lamb is proving a little unwilling to be born. The rams are also very friendly and gentle. Due to their natural breeding instincts the ram can stay with the flock throughout out the year and only start thinking about breeding again in late autumn as the cooler weather arrives. They make wonderful Dads as well. Several of our rams are frequently used as trampolines with a line of lambs taking it in turns to bounce off their backs. We do however tend to separate our Ram from the flock in October and re-introduce him in November so that we can plan the exact dates for lambing and it also works to prepare him both mentally and physically for breeding.
The main thing I love about Hebrideans is their distinctively individual characters. Tilly, our matriarch is so funny and is very smart. She is a fantastic Mum and any ewe lambs she has are always guaranteed a place in our breeding flock as they inherit her wonderful temperament. Molly is quiet and reserved but is an obsessively attentive and protective Mum to her lambs. Libby is really cheeky and is always at the front of the bunch at treat time. She frequently jumps up onto you like a dog and will pinch bread right out of your hand.
Beatie is the bruiser of the flock and keeps everyone in check. She is also a one-ewe protection racket when any foxes or dogs come anywhere near the flock at lambing time. I have actually seen her chase a fox out of the paddock and then stand at the boundary bobbing her head at it as if to say “And don’t come back !!!.....” We didn’t see the fox for several weeks! They all have great personalities but I won’t bore you by describing them all.
Hebridean and Boreray sheep are self shearing breeds but we shear our flocks as soon as the hot weather arrives for their welfare and for their fleeces. Last year was a bad year for Fly strike - a particularly nasty affliction caused by certain flies laying their eggs in the sheep’s fleeces. The eggs then hatch and the resulting maggots can literally eat a sheep alive. By removing the fleece early and treating them with a defensive spray, the problem can be prevented. It’s also far more comfortable for the sheep and at lambing time, it is more hygienic for the lambs and a sheared ewe can share more of her body heat with her lambs when they cuddle up at night.
Rare breed wool is also very popular with spinners and crafters and we have sold fleeces to spinners all over the world including: UK, America, New Zealand, Denmark, Switzerland, Hawaii, Sweden and Finland! With all the fleeces we had available I soon became interested in wool products and looked at ways to make best use of the fleece. I bought a spinning wheel and quickly became hooked! It is incredibly therapeutic. I now produce yarn from our flock which we also sell from our website – www.rarebreedsessex.co.uk. The website has been vital to the viability of our smallholding providing a successful way to both market and sell all our produce.
We also breed Hebridean lambs for the table. Hebridean Lamb is delicious and is incredibly lean, has a succulent buttery taste and boasts far lower cholesterol levels than most commercial lamb! Traceability of food is also becoming very important these days, which encourages and generates many of our lamb sales. We sell to private individuals but have also sold our lamb to several high end local restaurants, as many prefer to use local produce and actively promote this on their menus. Rare Breed meat has also received a lot of positive press from TV Chefs and food programmes which also helps enormously. The day we delivered our first lamb to our first restaurant was an incredibly proud day for us, especially when we heard how quickly they had sold out and then placed an order for more!
Running a smallholding is incredibly rewarding and demanding at the same time. Yes it takes a lot of hard work, especially through the winter, holidays go out of the window, it can be heartbreaking one second and heart warming the next but I thank my lucky stars every single day that we were given the opportunity to do something so amazing.
For more information visit www.rarebreedsessex.co.uk.
Click on the leaflet to see further information about Millfields Rare Breeds