Welsh breed thrives by the seaside

Peter Vickerton tends to his lambs at Grange Farm, Atwick
Peter Vickerton tends to his lambs at Grange Farm, Atwick
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When you think of East Riding and in particular the coastal plains of Holderness the first image of the type of farming you will see is crops. Acre upon acre of wheat, barley and oilseed rape growing proud and tall will once again be in evidence in a few months’ time. One farming sector that is not as plentiful near to the coast is sheep.

The Vickertons of Grange Farm have ploughed their own furrow in the quiet village of Atwick (pronounced ‘attic’) for the past five generations and although they have always had some sheep their farming operation now revolves around them. They have a flock of 450 Lleyn ewes made up of 130 purebreds and the rest of crosses having started with them when they purchased a dozen from Peter Nettleton at North Dalton in 1999.

Lleyns have seen a substantial increase in popularity around the UK over the past 20 years having originated from the Lleyn peninsula in North Wales and Peter Vickerton and his father David have found that the breed ticks all of their boxes.

“In foot and mouth year of 2001 we peaked with cattle numbers at 202. We also had 27 sheep. The shutdown period cost us a fortune. We had all this stock to feed and we were getting to the point of jabbing them for pneumonia and God knows what else all weekend, so we decided to cut back. Dad was getting worse on his feet and my brother, James, hadn’t at that time shown an interest in coming into the business.

“I’m not a big believer that one man handling a lot of cattle on his own is a very safe way of working, whereas one man and a dog can handle a lot of sheep. We were running 40-50 sucklers and their offspring as well as buying in 100 bucket calves and rearing them. As we increased in Lleyn numbers the cattle numbers dwindled and we gradually pulled away altogether. I miss the cattle. When all your life you’ve looked out of the farm kitchen window and been used to cattle staring back at you the yard can look empty for several months, but then you consider the price of buying them.

“When we looked at having a specific sheep breed our thoughts were of making sure the one we went for was easy to handle. Whilst the Lleyn fulfils that criteria it also provides us with a number of other benefits. It allows us to run a closed flock breeding our own pure replacements and also crosses well with the Charollais and the Blue Texel.

“It was the lamb numbers that really convinced us. Up until then we had been happy averaging around 150 per cent lambs from ewes, but our average last year was 173 per cent. My ultimate ambition is to achieve 1.8 lambs per ewe tupped.”

Peter and David have nothing against the livestock market system but since processor Dawn Meats is just eight miles up the road they are able to keep haulage costs to an absolute minimum and their time away from the farm is miniscule as a result of the proximity.

“Dawn Meats pay on carcasses up to 21 kilos so the game with deadweight is to get as near to the top weight as you can and in the past year we averaged around 20 kilos. If we send smaller lambs at 17 kilos they also like that too as the supermarkets they supply want a piece of lamb that sits on a tray of a certain size. That weight suits them whereas going into the live market with a smaller lamb doesn’t generally work out well.

“The greater number of lambs that the Lleyn produces is a main driver of profit, but you don’t want too many triplets. This year we’ve scanned at 203 per cent giving us a nice mix of singles and triplets. We’ve brought 150 of our flock forward by six weeks and we’re lambing them at the moment. The rest will lamb in March/April. Last year we lambed them all at the same time and it was just manic.”

David started running the farm at 21 years of age following the death of his father. At that time Grange ran to just under 200 acres. British Gas made a compulsory purchase of the lion’s share of the Vickertons’ land for gas storage around a mile to a mile-and-a-half underground in 1972 and the family tenanted it back in return. Millions of cubic feet of gas goes into the National Grid each year.

Today’s farming operation runs to around 340-350 acres partly owned but mostly tenanted or rented not just in Atwick but also up the coast at Marton just north of Bridlington and near Driffield.

Whilst 130 acres of the farmland is devoted to arable crops this year the rest is predominantly permanent grassland. It’s an important consideration for Peter.

“We’ve always believed you have to have a range of diversified income streams because as a small farm you have to spread your risk. That’s why we took on a Higher Level Stewardship agreement. We’ve also come to the conclusion that the land needs goodness putting back after having years of nitrogen being thrown at it and the more traditional use of grasses helps. Subsidies aren’t going to last forever and we can’t carry on throwing on high cost inputs.

“Grass is important to us and we have to use it wisely here. We’re at the dry side of the UK and get just 22 inches of rain a year yet in the uplands of Wales that can be anything from 40-60 inches. What it means is we struggle for grass from late July to mid September so by lambing earlier we can also clear lambs that have reached the target weight sooner and that takes a little of the pressure off having enough grass.”

The latest new enterprise at Grange Farm is logs which has brought David’s other son James into the farm partnership. He already had a landscaping and fencing business and it was his idea to move into providing logs for fires. Last year they sold 200-250 tonnes of wood and they have now invested in a processor unit. Logs now contribute 23 per cent of the farm’s turnover.

Peter is married to Susan and they have a daughter Ellie-Mae who is nearly nine years old and is showing an interest in the sheep already.