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!