David Burden

Cat, Hari & Graham

Susan Harmer

The provenance of our yarn is not just part of our story, it is our story.

 

It seems to me that when you become interested in the provenance of a natural product you come to value every aspect of its creation and the contribution made by all those involved in its production. This is certainly true of all those who have supported us and purchased our wool. I love that our customers are interested in where our wool comes from and who shepherds the flocks from whence it hails.

Let me introduce you.

 

Duncton Flock

Without David's enthusiam, support and generous introductions South Downs Yarn would probably never have become a reality. This is the story of David and Judy Burden and the Duncton flock.

 

Louise: David can you tell me how you came to own a flock of Southdowns?

 

David: I've been really lucky. Since the day I left school at age 15 in 1958 I have been doing a job I love. During school I would help out at local farms and the day after I finished school I rode my bike up to the River Rother tied up my eel lines and checked the cattle fence. I have been in agriculture my whole life. Although cows were my thing there were Southdown sheep all around. In the 1960s when I was milking cows at Court Hill Farm I met Shep Oliver. Even in the 1960's shepherds were viewed as slightly apart from the rest of the farm, they still had their own language and no-one could understand a word they said. I can remember Shep having a very particular way with the sheep and very firm ideas about how to look after them. Shep Oliver came from a long line of shepherds and his sister Ethel was also one. I have a theory that it was Shep Oliver's sister that was the original inspiration for Tickner Edwardes's novel 'Tansy'. 

 

Judy's family came from Devon originally. After the first world war Judy's grandfather came up to Sussex in 1926 and went to the Leconfield Estate, Shopham Bridge Farm [link to audio]. It was a mixed farm and included sheep. They wouldn't have considered themselves pedigree breeders, but they were dealing and improving the flock. Judy's father Peter and uncle Wilfred went on to become champion sheep shearers and Judy would help out at busy times right from when she was a girl. When we started the Duncton flock father-in-law was on hand.

 

Louise: So why Southdowns?

 

David: At the time [1980] I just fancied having a flock of Southdowns. It's important to me to get these Southdowns in the right setting, they come from and thrive here in the South Downs and this is where we live so it felt a completely natural step. Again, I was lucky because I knew a lot of people who had experience of Southdowns and they helped.

 

Louise: Can you tell me how the flock started?

 

David: One of my lifelong friends Dick Mullen introduced me to Frank Grantham who had a flock down near Shoreham, the Chailey flock. In 1980 he said to me "David, come down and have a look and see if they are good enough". We picked out ten, Judy's dad was there. Frank said "Have you got any money?" [David laughs] I said "No." So he said "I have thought about this David, I am going to charge you £30 a piece. I've worked it out; it's £18 for the ewe, £2 for its wool and £10 for the lamb that they're carrying. Now, if any of these prove not to be in lamb you're to put them into Haywards Heath market in my name and you can have your money back." You can't say fairer than that! So we borrowed a trailer and a landrover and drove back down to pick them up. We brought them back. The Lywoods vet Mike Teale had a look at them for me. He gave me, I didn't realise it at the time, but it was a flock health management plan. He said: "There are three things you must do. Their greatest risk is from other sheep, so they are not to come into contact with other peoples sheep, you're not to share any equipment and they are not to graze on land that other sheep have grazed on less than a year." It was quite a constraint on us but that's what we've tried to do all along. It was good sound, sensible advice.

 

Louise: Have you made any additions or changes to the flock since then?

 

David: That same year, 1980 we went to Findon Sheep Fair in the autumn. We purchased twenty shearlings from W M Chitty and his Mundham flock. We also bought a ram from the 6th Marquis of Exeter from the Burleigh estate. We've never had to buy any ewes since. We buy our rams privately, when we need to, from leading breeders who have invested their time and resources into producing good rams, so we and the flock are able to benefit from that.

 

Louise: We have had a lot of conversations about the history of many local flocks and the people and places associated with them. How important is the history of the Southdown breed to you?

 

David:  It’s everything. It’s all linked. The history and lineage of each flock can be traced just as those who have bought and sold them can be. There are so many interesting characters associated with Southdowns. One of them is Herbert Padwick, a really important figure locally and nationally. He’s been mostly forgotten but he’s one of my heroes. He was a considerable public figure, but he wasn’t self-interested. As well as having cattle and a pedigree flock of Southdowns on his farm at Thorney Island he was really active in the community. He served on the War Agricultural Committee and was a founding member of the Southdown Sheep Society. His grandfather purchased sheep from the Ellman dispersal sale and was also a leading figure in the establishment of the Royal Agricultural Society. He worked hard to try and bring farmers together, not an easy task!

 

Louise: What, if any challenges as shepherds have you faced since you started?

 

David: Some of those we have imposed by ourselves, like having a mainly closed flock. External challenges, well dogs. We've lost several sheep and lambs to dog attacks. Other challenges recently have been the reports of Schmallenberg virus, the other is the weather.  In 2012 during the storms one of the fields we were using flooded overnight and we lost a number of sheep then.

 

The other challenge for us all is helping the next generation of farmers and shepherds. One of Herbert Padwick’s legacies was the West Sussex Education Trust Fund. This provides small bursaries for young agricultural students. I feel it’s really important that we help young people, not just financially but also to take an active interest in local and national agricultural policy and politics. I was lucky because I was mentored and encouraged to be involved from a very early age, I was given support to attended meetings, AGM’s and get involved with local issues. I would like to see more young people being helped to do the same. It’s just as important now as it was when I was young.

 

Louise: I don’t want to embarrass you, however I want to mention that you recently received the Order of the National Parks. What does receiving that award mean to you?

 

David: [Giggles] It is nice to be recognised, and I’m chuffed to bits.

 

Louise: Last, but by no means least, what are your hopes for the future?

 

David: Well, I would like to see a centre of excellence in West Sussex. There could be, we’ve got some excellent sheep about. That’s why it is so important what you’re doing.

 

Thanks to David and Judy for sharing their Southdown story.

Nepcote Flock

Louise: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, and the other shepherds you work with?

Graham: My interest in shepherding had been there for years but 2009 was the first time when it was possible for me to own sheep. Hari came from a sheep farming background where her parents ran a sheep farm up in the Midlands, and Catherine joined the group in 2016 and she has always had an interest in the countryside. The Nepcote flock started in May 2009 with seven sheep as a hobby. We purchased our first sheep from well-known local Southdown farmers the Humprey’s from East Dean near Goodwood.

Louise: Can you tell us why you decided to be a small cooperative and what are the benefits? (You might like to mention your recent search for a new shepherd).

Graham: We decided to have a small cooperative as we all still had day jobs when we started the flock. We also felt we had different yet complementary skills and experiences to bring to managing the flock, and of course with three of us it would allow each member to have a break as cover was readily available. In 2016 one of the original partners decided to stand down after seven years, so we advertised for a replacement. There was so much interest by the media in our search to find a local shepherd that we were given radio and national newspaper exposure. From a number of advertisements six people applied and three were interviewed. We were delighted to invite Catherine who also lives in Findon to join the cooperative.

Louise: Historically there was a flock of Southdowns in Findon called the Cissbury flock. How important was it to you to bring a flock back to the village?

Graham: It was really important; with sheep farming in Findon going back hundreds of years, the association with the Findon Sheep Fair, and the fact that we rent our land in the heart of the South Downs meant we just had to have the Southdown as our breed.

Louise: What, if any challenges have you faced as shepherds since you started?

Graham: Although the initial partners had been involved with sheep over the years, we had never owned sheep so we had to understand how to manage a flock, keeping in line with the rules and regulations of Defra and Trading Standards. Managing and understanding pasture as the flock grew was also important. We had to build and maintain relationships with local field and land owners whose pastures the flock graze on, and we to understand what their needs were too. Loosing a lamb to a dog in 2010 was very painful and distressing. In 2014 we experienced the loss of our stable including all our equipment which was destroyed by fire. However, we were very fortunate and with the support of the field owner we had a new stable built and replaced all of the equipment. Every year is different in shepherding, luckily there are always farmers and local people willing to help if something difficult occurs. 

Louise: You are also actively involved in village activities as well as being one of the volunteers for the annual Findon Sheep Fair. Can you tell us a little bit about the fair and your hopes for its future?

Graham: The Findon Sheep fair lost its auction in 2000 and for six years there were not really any sheep on Nepcote Green at the fair. In 2007 we managed to get twenty sheep in ten pens, and from that year we started sheep judging. Every year we try to build on this success, in 2016 we had over 300 sheep attending the show. The fair is now well known throughout the country with farms attending from all over the South of England and judges coming from all over the UK. We hope the show will continue in its current format with free entry for the public. The fair is not just about the judging, we also see it as an opportunity for the public to meet the sheep, shepherds and find out about where their meat and woollen clothes originate from. It is an ever evolving show and we need it to be varied and interesting each year.

Louise: Is there anything else you would like to tell us about?

Graham: We're really proud that we sell our meat and wool locally. We have taken sheep into a local school, play group, church, coffee mornings in the village hall and once we also took them to a children’s hospice. Last December we organised a 'live nativity' in the village and our sheep walked next to the donkey at the front of the procession. We really like to involve the flock with the community, and the community with the flock.

Thanks to Graham for being the spokesperson for the shepherds of the Nepcote flock.

Ridings Flock

Louise: Can you tell me a little bit about how you came to be a shepherd?

Susan: My father was Paul Wakeham-Dawson. The sheep were my dad’s before me. I was 12 when dad got his first sheep. Teddy was one of the first six and it was her fleece that mum used to knit me my ‘Teddy’ jumper.  I was completely enchanted by the sheep from the day they arrived and nothing has changed 37 years on.

Louise: When did your family (ancestors) start farming and where?

 

Susan: Dad was Sussex born and bred. For him it was a choice between Suffolks and Southdowns; he spent all his youth going round the South Down farms doing sheep work with all the traditional old Southdown shepherds. He was tempted with Suffolks (his dad was from Suffolk) but he decided to keep with tradition and have Southdowns. I think the experience with the old shepherds influenced his decision. As well as dad, I also remember some of the old shepherds. I used to go off for days with Jack Coleman at Ringmer. He was still folding, but that doesn’t happen now.

Louise: How do you come to be in Offham, East Sussex?

Susan: Dad trained for the Ministry of Agriculture so he travelled around to different farm placements. In his youth he was a dairy farmer and grew sugar beet; it wasn’t until he got older that he had a smallholding on the side and moved to East Sussex. Offham is my husband's farm, he is the fifth generation here. We met when I came with the shearing gang. I met Justin right here in this shed, it was an old cow shed at the time but now it is our farm shop. I was only a wool roller, a good student job. It was my middle year from college and to think I was supposed to have had that day off from work!

Louise: Can you tell us about what it is like working together as a family?

Susan: Justin and I have three children Lizzy, Edward and Gussie. We do work together very well as a family and that is the main secret to our success! We each have areas of our own responsibility so we don't encroach on each other and we are all independent units working towards one goal. Justin runs the holiday cottages along with the cattle and arable with Edward. I run our pedigree flock but we continuously help each other. Gussie shows the pigs and has her own commercial ewes. Lizzy has her own flock of Southdowns and farms at Battle with her husband, Chris, and baby George, as well as helping us out at show times. Edward is just starting his own pedigree and commercial sheep flocks. I run the pigs with Justin. We all do our commercial ewes and the farm shop. It's all go!

Louise: Have there been any further significant additions or changes to the flock since you started shepherding, and if so can you tell me about them?

Susan: The main change to the flock happened when we went to France for rams in 2007. They have revolutionised the flock. The French flocks are made up from English Southdowns that were exported in the 1900s. Around the second world war all British Southdown stock was bred smaller and smaller, it became the trend to have small, dinky things. Then people began to realise how small and fat everything was and they wanted to get back to something bigger. To do that you have to use another gene pool to bring that quality back. The French and New Zealand flocks have kept closer to the original shape. The smaller Southdowns waddle along and I wanted to have a sheep with a gait that moves freely.

 

The introduction of the French lineage has helped to improve muscle depth and growth rates. Fleece wise, I won more wool competitions before the French introduction, although the ram we have at the moment is winning a lot of wool prizes and he is completely French. When a change first gets introduced everyone says “Oh I don’t like that, it’s not the right thing.” But gradually it eases its way in and you might not be choosing a French ram as such but if you look back at its pedigree you find it has a French or a New Zealand line in the pedigree. Change is gradually accepted and the whole breed benefits from improvement.

Louise: What qualities distinguish the Southdown in your opinion and why did you choose this breed to shepherd?

Susan: Well I inherited them, but they fit the bill because they are a native breed and my local one. Southdowns are an outstanding meat breed, early maturing and easy to manage. They are non-selective grazers and do well on both good pasture and poorer downland turf. They are also good for the farm shop as they have great flavour and tenderness.

Louise: What, if any challenges have you faced as shepherds since you started?

Susan: I just love it. All of it. If I had to pick something it would be dog worrying. Probably also shearing, Southdowns have woolly faces and legs making extra work and go rigid whilst being shorn making them the least favourite sheep with contract sheep shearers.

Louise: Is the history of the Southdown breed important to you and if it is, why?

Susan: Oh yes, very. We’re farming only five miles away from Glynde where it all started. We are carrying on breeding and improving our flock as well as contributing to the breed’s continuation.

Louise: When we first visited you back in 2016 we were so impressed with the technology that you are using, can you tell us a little bit about what you do?

Susan: I love the technology. It speeds up the rate of genetic improvement. You can get the best males and improve the flock with artificial insemination but the embryo transfer scheme means you can now do this on the female side. So you are speeding everything up massively and you can fill your flock up with good genetics and see that happening around you. A top ewe can produce up to 12 lambs from a successful ET programme in one year - this is the same as a whole life time of her production from natural breeding.

 

We’re also involved in the Signet recording scheme which charts growth rates, fat and muscle depth, prolificacy of ewes etc. This really helps us understand and manage the flock’s characteristics to promote performance and output, which in turn helps the pedigree and commercial flocks' financial output.

 

There is also feed and forage. This is a very topical subject in agriculture at present with meat from forage only diets being promoted. On our farm we produce over 600 fat lambs from forage only through each summer and autumn. Grassland and clover leys gets a lot of attention to maximise output. The remaining 200 lambs fattening over the winter are supplemented with our own home grown barley, to which we add soya and sugar beet. We are 95% self sufficient in terms of feeding our animals for forage and concentrates feeds. Fat lamb output must be spread through out the year on our farm to keep our farm shop supplied with lamb. The pedigree sheep are on a similar feed regime to the commercial lambs, I find that our winter barley diet grows a slower maturing sheep than a bought-in concentrate feed does, which turns into a better adult for showing.

 

Wool quality is affected mainly by genetics but also by the diet and health of the sheep. A rich diet appears to produce thicker and larger quantities of wool. We are not experts on wool in any way but we suspect the finest fleeces of the best quality seem to come from grass fed sheep. It would be very interesting to learn more about it.

 

We are fortunate because as we also have a large commercial flock, our shearers charge us a flat rate for shearing all our sheep, but I know that shepherds with small Southdown flocks pay a high premium for shearing because they can be difficult.

Louise: Now you win a lot, and I mean a lot of prizes, and you are at every show I attend. Can you tell me about what showing means to you?

Susan: My dad started showing and I got the bug. I love it and I love to compete with all our livestock, cattle, sheep and pigs at shows. We use attending shows as holidays and we get to see other flocks and herds, with their stockmen as our friends all over the country. Competing around the country against other enclaves of Southdowns means that we get meet people that we otherwise wouldn't and see the marked variation in Southdown type in different county regions.

 

Travelling about I think the quality of Southdowns varies considerably across Britain. I think the sheep down here in the SE are really good, and there are some great shepherds here too which means the competition is stiff. It’s not just husbandry, the genetics and breed improvement is popular here too.

 

We talked about how some breeders are averse to innovative practices such as bringing in a French or NZ ram. We’re certainly not the first to do this and it has happened in many waves over the decades. In fact a study that looked at the Southdown flock books over the last ten years, found that of about 3,000 breeding ewes only 46 didn’t have French or New Zealand lineage. If the study went back further those few remaining ewes would no doubt have traces in their pedigree's too. There may be dispute about what constitutes a ‘traditional’ Southdown, but if they are pure then they are what they should be.

Louise: What are your hopes for the future of the Southdown breed and their shepherds?

Susan: For them to become properly commercially viable so that they can compete against all breeds. The Southdown breed has an element of hobby farmers amongst its breeders which is good but they are a great commercial breed too. We produce top quality commercial Southdown lambs on grass very successfully.

 

In terms of the wool and fleece, it’s worth so little financially to the farm. For it to be valued it has to be worth something and the bottom line is that if you don’t get paid enough for it, it won’t be valued. It doesn’t feel like this is changing in any meaningful way. Farmer's cannot afford to invest in wool quality and improvement with no financial return to finance it.

We’ve done various things over the years although my dabbles into trying to do things with the skins and wool have been a little scary as the processing is so expensive. We’ve sent off to make sheep skins, had the fleeces made into blankets but none of these have been successful commercially, although it is very satisfying to sleep under and wear your very own wool products!

 

So my mum takes a few fleeces for spinning and knitting, other than that the fleeces go the BWMB.

A huge thank you to Susan for all her time and cake fresh from the farm shop during the interviews!

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