Early lambing flocks are usually the domain of the farmer who wants to get lamb on the market for Easter or in some cases to show bigger lambs, when the summer show season comes around, than those born more traditionally in March and April. Yet for one South Yorkshire sheep farming family the reason was initially connected to the festive season.
Things have been decidedly more tinsel related at Totley Hall Farm in the village of Totley on the urban fringe of Sheffield where the past month has seen a succession of schools and families bringing their children to the farm’s nativity plays. It’s an interactive performance that sees the young ones touching and holding animals as they play the roles of shepherds, wise men and innkeepers.
Edwin and Jenny Pocock decided on their Christmas business just over a decade ago having seen how it was done on a farm in Devon.
“We were on holiday and had booked tickets to go and see what they were doing and how it worked,” says Jenny. “It was wonderful and we thought that we might be able to replicate it up here.”
Naturally one of the farming prerequisites in the nativity drama is at least one lamb and in order that they had an appropriate number of understudies an early lambing flock was deemed the order of the day.
“We’ve always had sheep here,” says Edwin. “But when we took on the nativity idea as a diversification business we realised that we would need a source of early-born lambs. We needed to find ewes that would lamb at the right time of year, and that’s how we found the Dorsets. They are the only indigenous breed that can lamb all year round and so we started with 50 that we bought from Jim Dufosee who is a respected breeder from Wiltshire. We are now members of the Dorset Horn & Poll Dorset Breed Society.
“There was little intention in our minds of doing much more than using them for the nativity plays but because they were pedigree we thought it might be good to look a little more closely at what we could do with them as a flock in their own right rather than purely as a means to our end in the run-up to Christmas. We now have 240 breeding ewes and 125 of them lamb between November 16 and now with the rest lambing in March. We also still run a flock of 20 Texel ewes.
“We’re normally the first to have lambs in the market at Bakewell and we’re pretty much the only ones taking lambs in for about six weeks. We aim to get around £100 per 12-week-old lamb. That’s not bad but with feed and straw costs it is high input as well as high output.
“There’s a very strong market for Dorset ewes and we can pretty much sell anything we produce. It’s not too bad a tup market either and we do sell some to other breeders but the Dorset ewes are such good mothers they are much in demand. We also sell quite a lot of female stock to other breeders such as those with Texels for embryo transfer work. The breed is on the up at the moment and part of that is down to being able to have lambs when you want.
“We started showing them in 2004 when we took a lamb to the Great Yorkshire Show and took second prize. That first one put us into the showing habit and we now show each year at the breed society sales in Worcester and Carlisle as well as making our annual appearance at Harrogate. It’s our shop window.”
Edwin is from Oxfordshire and started out in agriculture when he managed a farm near Coventry. He moved north with Jenny when they tried for a farm of their own and secured the tenancy of Totley Hall Farm from Sheffield Council in 1982. They started out with around 100 acres that’s a mix of high white clover long-term leys and permanent pasture. They have relinquished poorer land and woodland back to the council over the years. Today they rent a further 30 acres in addition to their remaining 80 tenanted acres and have altered their farm according to trends and economic considerations.
“When we first started here we had bits of everything from chickens, pigs, sheep, soft fruit, potatoes and cereals. Where we are situated just on the edge of Sheffield has always made us easily accessible for retail sales and that was the reason why we went into potatoes, soft fruit and eggs. At one point we were also selling quite a lot of meat, half lambs or half pigs. We changed course because our pig unit was too small and the hygiene rules on retailing of lamb, while our soft fruit enterprise that had done well for 15 years started losing its customer base. We needed to spend money on new plantations and took the decision that it wasn’t worthwhile.”
The nativity business and the Dorset flock took over, as well as selling Christmas trees. One of their two sons Chris now runs the nativity business with Jenny.
“The school groups come along with anything like 20-50 children at a time,” says Chris. “They’re all dressed up as the characters from the nativity whilst I narrate the story and some of our staff prompt the children. Mary gets to ride on a real donkey when going to Bethlehem and the shepherds get to carry real newly born lambs when making their way to the stable. There’s even Rosey the Hereford cow in the corner. Throughout it all we sing Christmas carols. For some children this is their first experience of animal handling. We also have our very own Santa Claus on hand to offer our visitors a full Christmas experience and for some families coming here has become a regular part of their festive season.”
Jenny, who hails from Wolverhampton was a home economics teacher. She recalls how Edwin would juggle being Santa, lambing and selling trees. “He used to get in trouble for turning up late as Santa because he was too busy with his trees.”
Chris and his father also run an agricultural contracting business for grassland related jobs.
Edwin and Jenny have one other son Matthew who works for a land agent in Northampton.